Arizona thwarts Dayton's comeback bid, moves closer to home-state Final Four

Arizona is now two wins away from playing a Final Four a two-hour drive from its campus.

The second-seeded Wildcats became the first team to advance to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 on Saturday with a hard-earned 78-68 victory over resilient, never-say-die Dayton.

Two days ago, Dayton trailed by 17 midway through the second half of its first-round matchup against Nevada. The seventh-seeded Flyers responded with a 24-4 surge to stun the Wolf Pack and extend their season.

On Saturday, Dayton again fell behind by 17 late in the first half, the victim of an early barrage of 3-pointers from streak-shooting Arizona guard Caleb Love. The Flyers answered back with a 10-0 surge going into halftime and later trimmed the deficit to as little as three, but the Wildcats didn’t wilt when faced with game pressure.

Rather than allowing Dayton to continue to force lumbering 7-footer Oumar Ballo to defend pick and rolls, Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd went to a small-ball unit with versatile forward Keshad Johnson in the middle. The change helped the Wildcats string together enough stops to extend the lead to double digits again and set up a Sweet 16 matchup against either third-seeded Baylor or sixth-seeded Clemson on Thursday in Los Angeles.

Love had 13 of his team-high 19 points in the opening 12 minutes to help Arizona storm out of the starting blocks fast in a game that tipped at 10:45 a.m. MT. Dayton star DaRon Holmes II kept his team in striking distance with 23 points and 11 rebounds, the majority of the versatile, athletic forward's damage coming via the pick and roll.

Mar 23, 2024; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Arizona Wildcats guard Caleb Love (2) reacts after a basket during the first half in the second round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament against the Dayton Flyers at Vivint Smart Home Arena-Delta Center. Mandatory Credit: Gabriel Mayberry-USA TODAY Sports
Arizona guard Caleb Love (2) led his team to an impressive second-round win over the Dayton Flyers on Satutday in Salt Lake City. (Gabriel Mayberry-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Connect / Reuters)

Arizona's victory keeps the Pac-12 perfect in its final NCAA tournament. The dying power conference is now 6-0 this week with Washington State, Oregon and Colorado still left to play in the Round of 32.

In three seasons at Arizona, Lloyd has won almost 90 games, captured two Pac-12 titles and claimed two conference tournament crowns. The only thing Lloyd hasn’t done yet is coach the Wildcats deep into the NCAA tournament.

Two years ago, a top-seeded Arizona team was fortunate to survive TCU in the Round of 32 and then lost to Houston in the Sweet 16. Last year, a second-seeded Arizona team didn’t even win a game, falling to Princeton in the first round.

A deep run is still a possibility this year. And a home-state Final Four remains a tantalizing possibility.