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March 27, 2014

Arizona, SDSU look to ditch sour taste of Sweet 16 past

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The last time Arizona played an NCAA West Regional contest at Honda Center, it was both a reason to celebrate and the latest in the recent string of postseason shortcomings.

Three years later, as the top seed in the region, Sean Miller remembers that Thursday night's opponent, No. 4 seed San Diego State, was in the building that week, too.

Tipoff is scheduled for 7:17 p.m., or 30 minutes after the other regional semifinal between No. 2 seed Wisconsin and No. 6 seed Baylor.

"We were both here together a few years ago, but we didn't play each other," the fifth-year UA head coach said. "But I remember thinking if we did, what it would be like."

In 2011, the Aztecs lost 74-67 in the regional semifinal to eventual national champion Connecticut. Despite the emotional high of a 93-77 win over Duke, the Wildcats were edged 65-63 by the Huskies as Jamelle Horne's potential game-winning 3-pointer misfired.

But the two teams no longer have to dream about how such a battle would play out. Arizona topped then-unranked SDSU, 69-60, in a Nov. 14 meeting in San Diego. The Wildcats led by as many as 14 in the first half before a late Aztecs push cut the deficit to 4. But Nick Johnson scored 23 points and Aaron Gordon added 16, including the finish on an alley-oop over Dakarai Allen with 1:22 to play that held off the charge.

SDSU (31-4) went on to win 20 consecutive games immediately after the loss and jump to as high as No. 5 in the rankings. Arizona (32-4) opened the season 21-0 and spent eight consecutive weeks at No. 1. A pair of regular-season conference championships later, the programs collide again in the Sweet 16.

But the Wildcats will see a new face when key reserve Dwayne Polee, the Aztecs' third-leading scorer, enters the game. The junior has appeared in 32 of 35 games but was not part of the regular rotation early in the season.

"I think my defense has helped me up the food chain on this team," said Polee, who averages 8.4 points. "I just try and come in, bring a lot of energy."

Although both teams have changed - UA forward Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury on Feb. 1 - Gordon said he is expecting much of the same intensity.

"It's going to be a high-level basketball game on the defensive side and the offensive side," said Gordon, a freshman who is shooting 71.4 percent from the field through his first two NCAA tournament games.

While Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher refuses to watch film of the loss to UConn - and firmly maintains that he still had the better team that season - there is one image of Arizona burned into his memory.

It wasn't this season's contest, but the thrilling 68-67 UA victory at the 2012 Diamond Head Classic on Christmas Day in Hawaii. The game ended after Johnson blocked what would have been an open Chase Tapley layup in the closing seconds.

"I watched that too many times," Fisher said. "I said, 'Where did he come from? How did he do what he did?' I mean, I'm ready to give my acceptance speech for the championship trophy."

What Fisher hopes to do this time around is deliver a speech for a program that has yet to advance past the regional semifinal round. After surviving an overtime opener against New Mexico State, the Aztecs received 30 points from Xavier Thames and limited the country's top shooting team to 31.9 percent in a 63-44 win over North Dakota State.

Thames, who was limited to a 5-of-16 shooting night in the first meeting with the Wildcats, said the glass is where SDSU must be sound. Arizona owned the boards, 39-28 - including 11 offensive rebounds - but the Wildcats have lost the rebounding battle in each of their first two tournament games.

"We didn't box out really well, but we learned from that," Thames said.

"Also, when we penetrate, they get their hands and steal a lot of basketballs. So we've just got to be aware of that, take care of the ball and rebound and get back in transition."

Weber State and Gonzaga did not have much luck. Arizona put on a defensive clinic in its first two tournament victories, collecting 12 blocks against Weber State and 15 steals against Gonzaga - both of which set single-game NCAA tournament school records.

The 84-61 win over the Bulldogs was a double-digit margin after just eight minutes. The Wildcats, who put five scorers in double digits, feasted off forcing 21 turnovers and capitalized for 31 points.

UA is in its third Sweet 16 in four years, including a loss last year to Ohio State, but hasn't been to a Final Four in 13 years.

Miller hasn't reached the national semifinals ever and is looking for a third opportunity to shed the label.

"I can't really - and I don't think we can - think about that as much as, 'Let's try to be at our best on Thursday,'" Miller said. "Because if we're not, we all know what will happen."

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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