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March 21, 2014

Top-seed Arizona survives late push in NCAA opener

SAN DIEGO -- It wasn't pretty, but the name of the game this time of the year is survive and advance.

But don't tell Aaron Gordon that.

Top-seeded Arizona led by as many as 21 before holding on Friday against No. 16 Weber State, 68-59, in a second-round West Regional contest in the NCAA tournament at Viejas Arena.

"I don't like the term 'survive and advance,' I like the term 'dominate and advance,'" said Gordon, who scored 16 points, pulled down eight rebounds and tied Kaleb Tarczewski with a game-high five blocks in the victory. "I don't think we dominated today, but that's our mentality and that's what we need to have."

Gordon set the single-season school record for blocks by a freshman with 35, surpassing Grant Jerrett's previous high of 33 accomplished last season.

He was joined by leading scorer Nick Johnson (18) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (13 off the bench) and Tarczewski (10) in double figures for Arizona (31-4), which moved on and will play No. 8 Gonzaga on Sunday. Gonzaga defeated No. 9 Oklahoma State later in the day, 85-77.

The UA defense produced 12 blocks, the most in head coach Sean Miller's five seasons, but the team forced just one turnover after halftime.

"I never felt the game was in doubt," Miller said.

"If we would have been more disciplined with our fouls and kept them off the line, we would have had an incredible defensive performance. That's why when you look at the stat sheet they shot 30 percent for the game and we shot 55 percent, and usually when that happens the score is even more lopsided. But we negated some of our great defense with reaching in and that's something we have to correct going forward."

Big Sky Conference player of the year Davion Berry scored 19 of his 24 points in the second half for Weber State (19-12), which shot 30.2 percent. The senior guard missed 15 of his 20 shots from the field, but was 10 of 10 at the free-throw line.

"I just didn't really make shots in the first half," Berry said. "But, you know, I stayed with it all game long."

Arizona led 50-29 with 11:35 to play, but Weber State closed within 9 with 4:30 to play. Richaud Gittens started the push by splitting a pair of free throws, then connected on three consecutive Weber State baskets.

Gittens finished with 12 points off the bench.

In the bonus midway through the half, Weber State made 11 of its next 12 free throws, and a Berry 3-pointer and pair of free throws cut the deficit to 60-51.

Twenty-four seconds later, Johnson restored the double-digit lead on a 3-pointer to provide just enough of a cushion. Weber State trimmed the deficit to as few as 7 in the final minute but would get no closer.

"Aaron got in the post and found me on the wing," Johnson said of his backbreaking bucket. "I just knocked it down. It's the NCAA tournament. You gotta hit shots and that's what happened."

Weber State outrebounded Arizona, 32-31, and drained 20 of 23 free throws - including 14 of 16 in the second half - to remain competitive.

"It hurts because, believe it or not," Weber State head coach Randy Rahe said. "Not a lot of you probably thought that but we came in expecting to win, trying to win.

"The guys did a tremendous job. I thought we could have pulled in the tents and our guys got a little more tough and showed resilience like they have all year."

Arizona started the game tight, missing its first two layups and turning the ball over three times through nearly five scoreless minutes. A Berry 3-pointer helped Weber State jump out to the 7-0 lead.

But Weber State then had its own issues taking care of the ball and UA capitalized behind Gabe York.

The only time York got on the floor for Arizona's run to the Sweet 16 last season, the game was already out of hand and he logged just four minutes. There was no role available in a crowded backcourt, despite his shooting ability.

One year later, the sophomore is a key starter, inserted into the lineup after Brandon Ashley went down with a season-ending foot injury.

In his first NCAA tournament start, York ended the drought with a steal and layup, then followed with a 3-pointer. That ignited a 14-5 run - including eight points from the sophomore, the last 3 putting Arizona ahead 14-12 with 11:41 left in the half.

"I think it was a big step for me," said York, who finished with nine points, four rebounds and three assists. "I got a steal and got a layup, saw the ball go in the basket right away. I think it definitely started to get me in a groove."

Weber State went into an offensive funk, missing 12 of 13 shots as Arizona built its lead to 13 on a pair of occasions. Weber State shot just 25 percent and had nine turnovers in the half.

Arizona, which connected on half of its 26 attempts, took a 32-20 lead into the locker room.

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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