TUCSON, Ariz. – For the better part of 38 minutes, Gonzaga did everything it needed to do to put itself in position to win.
And then it didn’t when it needed to the most.
In a tense duel between two of the West’s best programs, the ninth-ranked Zags fended off repeated Arizona spurts but ran out of answers late in regulation and in overtime as the Wildcats escaped with a 66-63 victory Saturday in front of 14,655 packed inside the McKale Center.
Gonzaga (7-1) made two free throws in the final 3:55 of regulation and just one field goal – a Kevin Pangos 3-pointer under duress – in overtime.
“It came down to a couple of possessions at the end,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We didn’t do a great job of getting shots on goal or getting to the (free-throw) line, which we’ve usually done a lot of times.”
No. 3 Arizona (8-0) pulled even in regulation on forward Brandon Ashley’s three clutch field goals. Senior guard T.J. McConnell scored all six of the Wildcats’ points in the extra session.
“Defensively we couldn’t get stops (late),” Gonzaga guard Gary Bell Jr. said. “We should have won but we didn’t.”
There were no prolonged runs in this bruising, possession-by-possession affair in which Gonzaga’s largest lead was six points and Arizona’s was four, and that came in the extra session. But the Zags held a slight edge most of the way, leading for more than 28 minutes to Arizona’s 10:24.
They matched their largest lead, at 58-52, after Kyle Wiltjer’s putback with 4 minutes left. GU led 60-56 with 2:34 left after a pair of Domantas Sabonis free throws.
Gonzaga’s defense was stout most of the way but Ashley, who had been fairly quiet, drove around Sabonis for a bucket and buried two jumpers to tie it at 60. After an exchange of turnovers, Bell was well off target on a driving attempt and Wiltjer missed a corner jumper as the buzzer sounded.
McConnell’s bucket in overtime gave Arizona its first lead since 8:34 of the first half. The Zags tried different options – Pangos, Bell, Sabonis, Wiltjer, Byron Wesley – down the stretch but came away with empty possessions, except for Pangos’ 3 that pulled GU within 64-63.
McConnell made 1 of 2 free throws, but got another chance after Rondae Hollis-Jefferson tipped the rebound out to a teammate. McConnell made 1 of 2 again with 16.8 seconds left and Arizona led by 3.
Pangos missed a 3 but Wiltjer tipped the ball to Wesley near the top of the circle. He was fouled attempting a 3-pointer by Elliott Pitts with 3.3 ticks remaining. With the student section as a backdrop and the crowd at full throat, Wesley air-balled the first, missed the second and had to miss the third intentionally. Arizona grabbed the rebound and time expired.
“I just didn’t step up for my team,” said Wesley, a 76 percent free-throw shooter who delivered clutch baskets and/or free throws against Georgia and St. John’s in the NIT Season Tip-Off. “It’s probably one of the worst feelings in the world, letting my team down and letting our fans down. I shoot free throws every day. I make free throws every day. I just didn’t make them when they counted.”
Few told Wesley afterward “that I have 100 percent confidence in him. I wouldn’t want anybody else up there but him.”
The game wasn’t always pretty, but it was fiercely contested. Both teams shot in the low 30 percent range in a first half that ended 27-27. Both offenses warmed up in the second half. GU took advantage inside with Przemek Karnowski, Wiltjer and Sabonis combining for 31 points and a 39-31 edge in rebounding.
The Wildcats countered with bench strength and 6-0 advantage in transition points.
“That (late-game execution) is something I guess we’ll figure out,” Pangos said. “Their defense is their strength and they did a good job covering what we wanted to get to. We didn’t get the best looks, myself included, but it’s something we can learn from.”
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