Solid defense, guard leads Arizona Wildcats past San Diego State in Maui

Before we went to Maui, Tommy Lloyd said Arizona’s defense was “growing” into something that could be pretty good. On Tuesday evening, the D reached puberty.

The 14th-ranked Wildcats overcame massive foul trouble by playing lockdown defense, holding No. 17 San Diego State for season lows in points and field goals and pulling away late in an 87-70 victory in the Maui Invitational Semifinals.

Arizona (5-0) will play for its first Maui title since 2014 when it faces No. 10 Creighton, a 90-87 victory over No. 9 Arkansas, at 3PM MT on Wednesday. The Wildcats have not lost a Maui final since 1997.

Kerr Kriisa and Courtney Ramey had 21 apiece, combined for eight 3-pointers, with Ramey making all five triples and hitting 8 of 12 off the field. Azuolas Tubelis, Omar Ballo and Cedric Henderson Jr. also scored in double digits, as the Wildcats shot 58.6 percent, tying for the best field goal percentage against the Aztecs in the past 13 seasons.

But it was how the UA defended SDSU (4-1) that really stood out. It held the Aztecs to 38.1 percent shooting overall and 3 of 19 of 3 after hitting 10 triples and shooting over 50 percent in the Maui opener against Ohio State.

And Arizona had to do it while dealing with its first significant foul trouble of the season. Four starters got their third foul in the opening 3:49 of the second half, with Ballo and Tubelis getting to four midway through the second half and Ballo finally going out. That lessened their impact, though they combined for 26 points (on 11-of-14 shooting) and 16 rebounds.

Ramey and Kriisa filled the offensive void, with the former posting his first 20-point game since February 2021 with Texas and the latter taking as many shots from inside the arc as outside while going 6 of 6 from the line.

Since coming off his season-opening three game suspension, Ramey is 14 of 21 off the field and 8 of 10 of 3.

Arizona led 37-33 at the half and was outscored 18-6 in the final five minutes. It was similar to Monday’s victory over Cincinnati as the Wildcats went scoreless for the last three minutes of the first half.

SDSU took the first lead at 42-40 at 17:40 after Tubelis threw it away and then fouled it Keshad Johnson on a breakaway dunk, making it a 27–9 run that goes back to the Wildcats’ biggest lead in the first half.

It was Tubelis’ third mistake, joining Ramey after making his third just two minutes into half-time Pele Larsson and Ballo took their third for the first media timeout. Still, Arizona managed to retake the lead on this wave of offenses, getting a 3 from Larsson, a 3-point play from Ballo, then four consecutive points from Kriisa to lead 50-43 with 15 minutes left .

Ramey’s fourth 3 capped a 15-3 to make it 55-45 with 12:51 to go, and Arizona still led by 10 as Tubelis and Ramey got their fourth foul in a 46-second span. However, the Wildcats still held a comfortable lead, with Kriisa scoring seven in a row, including a 3 to make it 69-56 with 7:43 left.

The UA built an 8-point lead midway through the first half, then used an 11-2 run to take a 31-15 lead before halftime with 5:06. That run included this ridiculous pass/catch/score between Kriisa and Tubelis:

But the Wildcats turned it around 10 times in the first half, negating 51.6 percent of shots and giving it away four times in the last three minutes of the half. They also had three starters with two offenses, which reduced defensive intensity.

Arizona and Creighton played only twice before, splitting a house-and-house in the late 1960s.

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