LOS ANGELES – Just when Arizona appeared to be in serious trouble against underdog Xavier, T.J. McConnell sparked his Wildcats back to the brink of the Final Four.
McConnell scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half, freshman Stanley Johnson added 12 points, and second-seeded Arizona made a dominant late rally for a 68-60 victory over sixth-seeded Xavier in the West Regional semifinals on Thursday night.
Kaleb Tarczewski had 12 points and 12 rebounds as the Wildcats (34-3) weathered a major scare from the Musketeers (23-14) and clamped down defensively during a game-ending 19-7 run.
With its third Elite Eight berth in five years, Arizona gets another shot its first Final Four under coach Sean Miller, who led Xavier for five years until 2009.
The Wildcats will face top-seeded Wisconsin (34-3) on Saturday at Staples Center in a rematch of last season’s West final.
“It’s almost as if we had a summer to think about it, and we have to somehow make that to our advantage,” Miller said.
Matt Stainbrook had 17 points and 10 rebounds in his final game for Xavier, which fell just short of its first trip to the Elite Eight since 2008. Those Musketeers were coached by Miller and assistant Chris Mack, who replaced his boss.
With its 14th straight victory, Arizona has another chance to reach its first Final Four since 2001 — but only after getting a late boost from McConnell, the senior who turned 23 on Wednesday. The point guard is Miller’s surrogate on the court, and he made all the right moves down the stretch.
Xavier moved ahead early in the second half and led 53-49 with seven minutes remaining — but with their season in danger, the Wildcats finally went to work.
Arizona’s sizable crowd awoke as the Wildcats made an 11-2 run that included a 3-pointer from McConnell with 4:18 to play. Even more importantly, Arizona held the Musketeers without a field goal for an 8:35 stretch in the final minutes after getting shredded on the interior earlier in the game.
Johnson, the Orange County product likely headed to the NBA after one season at Arizona, managed just two points after halftime. The Wildcats’ upperclassmen took charge late, with McConnell and Tarczewski scoring the biggest points and leading the defensive effort.
Arizona largely shut down Stainbrook, the Musketeers’ glasses-wearing, Uber-driving MBA student and leading scorer. He made just one field goal after halftime, part of their 9-for-23 performance from the field.
The game was a bittersweet reunion for Miller, who reluctantly left Xavier for a bigger job at Arizona. At Miller’s urging, the Musketeers gave the job to Mack, who has led Xavier to three Sweet 16 berths during six winning seasons while navigating the school’s move to the Big East.
After an even first half, the game appeared to be bending toward Xavier, which took a lead early in the second. The Musketeers even managed to get points on a possession featuring two air-balled 3-point shots, when Stainbrook caught the second miss and got fouled.
Neither team made a major move in the first half, which ended in a 28-28 tie. Although Johnson scored 10 points, his four fellow Arizona starters were a combined 5 for 19, and the Wildcats couldn’t score in the final 3:47.
Xavier appeared to be thoroughly unintimidated by the enormity of the stage, comfortably keeping pace with 10 points from Stainbrook and solid interior play. Only an 0-for-7 effort on 3-pointers prevented the Musketeers from taking a halftime lead.
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