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Arizona basketball season ends in disappointment

Posted at 5:19 PM, Mar 24, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-24 22:42:20-04

Arizona's season started with adversity as its best player sat on the bench for the first two months for then-undisclosed reasons. The Wildcats suffered through a string of injuries, playing nearly a month without one of the key contributors.

No matter what came Arizona's way, it kept finding ways to win. The Wildcats shared the Pac-12 regular-season title, won the conference tournament, reached 30 wins and the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

When the biggest game of the season got tense, the Wildcats somehow flinched.

On the cusp of its fourth Elite Eight in eight seasons, Arizona stumbled down the stretch of the West Region semifinals Thursday night, its season ending with a 73-71 loss to scrappy Xavier.

"Our goal and aspiration is always to challenge for a Final Four and get there, and we pulled up short," Wildcats coach Sean Miller said.

Arizona's season got off to a mysterious start as Allonzo Trier, the team's top returning scorer, sat on the bench for the first 19 games and the team did not explain why.

Trier finally returned in mid-January, revealing he had inadvertently taken performance-enhancing drugs following an accident. He was cleared by the NCAA, but could not play until the drugs cleared his system, which came just before Arizona beat then-No. 3 UCLA.

Arizona also played seven games without point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright due to a sprained ankle and had other players miss games with injuries.

The Wildcats kept fighting through the setbacks, finishing the regular season tied with Oregon atop the Pac-12 at 16-2.

Arizona rolled through the Pac-12 Tournament, winning three games in three days, a run that included victories over UCLA in the semifinals and Oregon in the title game.

The Wildcats opened the NCAA Tournament with a lopsided win over North Dakota and pulled away to beat Saint Mary's to reach the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in eight seasons under Miller.

That put Arizona (32-5) against Xavier in the regional semifinals for the second time in three years. The Wildcats appeared to be in good shape to knock off the Musketeers for the second time, leading by eight with about four minutes left.

Instead of finding a way to win, they wilted down the stretch, failing to score over the final 2:52 as Xavier closed with a 9-0 run.

Another deep run into the NCAA Tournament, another year without reaching the Final Four.

"Tough way to go out, especially knowing we had a lot of momentum," said Trier, who missed a 3-pointer that would have given Arizona the lead with 8 seconds left. "Just not an easy end to swallow."

Trier and freshman forward Lauri Markkanen now have decisions to make.

Trier considered leaving for the NBA after his freshman season before opting to return this season, so he may take another look at leaving early.

Markkanen was expected to be one and done when he arrived in Tucson from Finland. The 7-footer with deep shooting range and guard-like skills has been projected as a high NBA draft pick, so it wouldn't be a surprise if he does leave.

"I just need to take my mind off and rest right now," Markkanen said after the Xavier loss. "I'm not commenting."

The only player Arizona will lose for sure is senior Kadeem Allen. The former JUCO player of the year had two solid seasons with the Wildcats, providing steady leadership at point guard.

"There's never been anybody — and we've had some great players, great kids at Xavier and Arizona — that means more to me, that embodies the good in college basketball, than Kadeem Allen," Miller said. "That's always the hardest part when you know that his time is up."

Arizona should be in good shape next season regardless of who returns.

Miller has shown off his recruiting chops while at Arizona and next year's class has been touted as the best of the bunch, headlined by DeAndre Ayton, rated as the top overall recruit by some recruiting services.

But that's next season. This one just ended and the way it came to a close hurts.

"You know it's tough to look at our guys in disappointment, because we've had so many great moments and that's what makes the tournament so special," Miller said. "And that's also what's the hardest part about dealing with it, unless you get all the way to the promised land."