That was Arizona (32-4) in a nutshell, surging back from 10 points down to clinch a 69-60 victory over upset-minded Saint Mary's (29-5) at Vivint Smart Home Arena on Saturday evening.
Make no mistake: The Wildcats will beat you, and they won't care how ugly it gets. That's how they've made the Sweet 16 in four of the last five seasons.
"Nothing's easy in this tournament," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "The unexpected happens, and you have to fight through it to get there."
Arizona, which trailed 30-29 at the half, fought back in a game that featured nine lead changes in the second half alone. They were led by freshman Lauri Markkanen's 16 points and 11 rebounds in a matchup with vaunted Australian big man Jock Landale, and sophomore guard Allonzo Trier scored all 14 of his points in the second half.
It looked early as though the Gaels would provide the first upset of the Salt Lake City NCAA slate, charging out to a 22-12 lead as Landale made his first five attempts in the first eight minutes of the game.
Miller said he saw an air of sagging confidence from the No. 2-seeded Wildcats — he knew something was off when Trier absent mindedly stepped out of bounds early without a defender in the area. That also translated to an early rebounding advantage — the Gaels had six offensive boards by halftime.
Things took another dip when Alkins, the team's No. 3 scorer who dropped 20 on North Dakota in the first round, had to leave. Arizona needed to recollect its mojo.
"We understand it's a long game, we're going to stick to things we normally do," Trier said. "You're never going to get out of character."
The Wildcats resumed their normal role as a bullying, defensive-focused group, holding Landale to only three field goals over the final 32 minutes of the game. Against a reset Arizona man defense, the Gaels struggled to find the same easy shots they feasted on in their initial barrage.
Alkins also came back, which Miller described as a huge lift. While he only had six points, he scored four after halftime despite playing with three good fingers. He also notched one of the most eye-popping athletic feats of the game, leaping in front of an intended alley-oop. Marking it as a steal on the stat sheet hardly did it justice.
The freshman forward said seeing his team down by 10 on the television in the training room spurred his quick return.
"I told the trainer to do whatever it took to get back on the court," he said.
Free-throw shooting helped buoy the Wildcats at the end. They took 23 attempts to Saint Mary's eight, and made 15 in a row during one stretch, finishing 19 for 23.
Landale's 19 points and 11 rebounds paced the Gaels' effort, and they were within three points with 3:58 left after a Tanner Krebs 3-pointer. Markkanen buried a deep shot of his own 30 seconds later, then made two free throws to put Arizona up by at least two possessions the rest of the game.
The win will bring the Wildcats to San Jose, Calif., for a matchup with the No. 11-seeded Xavier Musketeers. In Arizona, which thrives on being the favorite, Xavier is likely to find a tough match.