No. 19 Arizona uses big second-half comeback to beat No. 13 Gonzaga

Nothing went right for No. 19 Arizona in the first half of its game against No. 13 Gonzaga on Saturday. The Wildcats shot 32 percent from the field, gave up over one point per possession, and generally had no answers for how to turn things around.

Then it happened.

The Wildcats played their best half of the young season in the second half against the Bulldogs, overcoming a 10-point halftime deficit to defeat Gonzaga 68-63 and pick up what is their best victory of the season. Gabe York was the key shot-maker in this one, as his 14 points in the first seven minutes of the second half brought Arizona back from the brink. He had 18 points for the game to lead the Wildcats, followed by Allonzo Trier’s 14.

In the first half, Kyle Wiltjer was unstoppable as he scored 20 of his 33 total points on 8-of-12 shooting. The Wildcats just gave him too much space to operate in both pick-and-pop and post situations, and he made them pay with his terrific touch.

But in the second half, Sean Miller and his team tightened the screws and really closed down the gaps that were there for Wiltjer early. By showing a double in the post and rotating out onto Wiltjer’s pops, the Wildcats forced the Gonzaga backcourt to beat them, and that’s just something that Josh Perkins and company aren’t quite ready to do yet against tough defensive pressure. Perkins, Eric McClellan, Kyle Dranginis and Silas Melson combined to shoot 1 of 11 in the second half.

Then on offense, York’s shooting opened up the rest of the paint for the Wildcats. Ryan Anderson had 11 of his 13 points in the second half as he had more space to impose his will athletically. Trier found more space to put pressure on the Zags with his ability to drive and finish. The strong defense from Arizona led to run-outs and transition opportunities. The Gonzaga defense didn’t play badly, but it wasn’t quite at the level it was in the first half when they held Arizona to 28 points.

Quality road wins are hard to come by, especially at The Kennel where Gonzaga had won 64 of its previous 67 games. This is not only a big résumé builder, but it also came with a half that Arizona can really build on. The defensive pressure was better than it has been all season, and the offensive execution was really terrific when it needed to be. If the Wildcats can keep up that energy and efficiency, they have a very good chance to win the Pac-12 due to their mix of efficiency and explosiveness.

If you’re a Gonzaga fan though, this one has to be a bit concerning. Przemek Karnowski was held out of the game due to back problems, and that lopped off its most effective defensive player in the paint. But the guard play and secondary scoring was simply lacking here. Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis scored 51 of the Bulldogs’ 63 points. The team turned the ball over 16 times. The lack of outside shooting beyond Wiltjer has led to some problems spacing the floor.

The season isn’t but one-fifth old, so Gonzaga has plenty of time to figure out its woes. But the concerns that were there in the preseason about this backcourt continue to persist now, and it’s clear the Bulldogs need to figure out how to remedy it if they want to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

Kyle Wiltjer had 33, but Arizona came away with the win. (USATSI)
Kyle Wiltjer had 33 points, but Arizona came away with the win. (USATSI)

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