SALT LAKE CITY – Fifteenth-seeded North Dakota had sliced Arizona’s 16-point lead to just seven with 12 minutes to play Thursday, prompting their fans — and any neutral ones left in the building — to start getting crazy.
It was about that time in Arizona’s eventual 100-82 win over the Fighting Hawks in a first-round NCAA Tournament game, that UA coach Sean Miller had a conversation with Kadeem Allen.
Allen, who struggled a year ago in the Wildcats’ first-round loss to Wichita State, had just three points and one assist in the first half.
“During that stretch coach challenged me and told me I’m a leader and a senior and if I want to go out like that so be it,” Allen said.
BOX SCORE: Arizona 100, North Dakota 82
He had to have known what that would feel like. Allen said he didn’t think about last year, but he had seven turnovers in the Wildcats’ first-round ouster against Wichita State last year.
After that game, the Wildcats went home and said goodbye to their four seniors.
Allen didn’t want to say goodbye.
So after North Dakota cut it to 68-61 with 12:07 left, the Wildcats went on a 10-0 run that was powered largely by Allen. The senior guard made a three-point play, sank two more free throws and a steal of Geno Crandall that he took coast-to-coast for a layup that made it 76-61.
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“I stepped up and my teammates gave me a confidence,” Allen said. “It carried me.”
He helped carry them, too. The Wildcats gave up 50 percent shooting to the Hawks in the second half but were able to thrive offensively in the fast-paced game North Dakota prefers.
That helped UA make up for some early second-half doldrums, seeing its 16-point halftime lead whittled down to just seven while North Dakota made 10 of its first 14 shots after halftime.
North Dakota also thrived early in the game, taking a three-point lead and hitting four of their first seven shots to take a 10-9 lead after five minutes.
“It wasn’t just Kadeem — I think everyone came out a little flat,” UA guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright said. “We count on Kadeem to lead us and make plays.”
He did. They all did, just about.
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By the end of it, Arizona hit the century mark for the first time this season, getting all five starters in double figures, with Lauri Markkanen and Rawle Alkins each scoring 20 points.
While Markkanen did all of his offensive work around the basket – he only took one 3-pointer and missed it – Alkins drove to the basket and made 3-pointers while hitting all eight shots he took.
Allonzo Trier was only 4 of 11 from the field but did his thing getting to the line, making 9 of 10 free throws, while Dusan Ristic helped Markkanen all but sew up the post against the undersized Hawks. Ristic had 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting and six rebounds.
“That was our game plan – we tried to go inside,” Ristic said. “We were also trying to get as many rebounds as possible.”
Uh-huh. That they did. Arizona out-rebounded North Dakota 40-31, though the Hawks managed to get 12 second-chance points off nine offensive rebounds, and outscored the Hawks 54-34 in the paint.
Overall, the Wildcats shot 58.1 percent from the field, hitting 4 of 11 3-pointers and making 24 of 28 free throws.
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North Dakota shot 46.4 percent overall and hit 10 of 22 3-pointers, signaling an alarm of sorts considering the Wildcats will move into the second round Saturday at about 4:45 p.m. against Saint Mary’s (29-4).
“That’s something we have to do better at,” Ristic said. “Saint Mary’s is a good 3-point shooting team.”
North Dakota, champion of the Big Sky Conference, ended its season at 22-10.
The Hawks were led by forward Drick Bernstine, who had 20 points and 15 rebounds. Guard Quinton Hooker had 25 points while making 5 of 8 3-pointers.