SAN DIEGO — Arizona avoided becoming the latest and biggest upset victim in an NCAA tournament that’s been filled with them.
The Wildcats will have to play a little better if they want to keep going in the bracket.
Nick Johnson scored 18 points, Aaron Gordon added 16 and top-seeded Arizona overcame a shaky start and a late run by Weber State to beat the Wildcats 68-59 in the West Regional on Friday.
The first full day of the tournament was a wild one filled with upsets, and the bracket-busting trend continued early Friday, when Mercer, a No. 14 seed, knocked off mighty Duke.
Arizona (31-4) appeared to be next in line, falling into an 8-point hole in the opening 6 minutes. Arizona closed in around Weber State (19-12), shutting down the Wildcats during two big first-half runs, seemingly putting the fairytale to bed.
Comfortably ahead, Arizona let off the gas late, allowing Weber State to trim a 21-point lead down to nine before pulling it out.
Solid, but not great, particularly since the next game — against Gonzaga or Oklahoma State on Sunday — is the spot the Wildcats have been picked to go down.
Weber State put up a fight in its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007, clearly not intimidated by Arizona and its cast of future NBA players. The Wildcats just didn’t have the manpower to keep up with the long, athletic Cats during their big runs and nor did they have enough left climb all the way back after clawing back in the second half.
Davion Berry scored 24 points and Richaud Gittens added 12 for Weber State.
Arizona had been in this spot before, facing a quick-trigger 3-point shooting team in the opening round.
A year ago, Belmont was a popular bracket buster pick against the Wildcats because of its ability to shoot the 3, but Arizona turned the slight into motivation and ran over the Bruins.
Even after an opening day of upsets in the bracket, there were no calls for an upset against Arizona this year.
But just as Mercer was busy taking down Duke, Weber State gave the 16-over-a-1-seed miracle a glimpse of life, holding Arizona without a field for nearly 5 minutes during a game-opening 10-2 run.
The dream popped with a flurry of blocked shots, steals and runouts the other direction.
After falling into the early hole, one of the nation’s best defenses flexed its muscles against the Big Sky-champion Wildcats, jumping into passing lanes, swatting shots, turning nearly every possession into a fight against the shot clock. Weber State missed 12 of 13 shots as Arizona went on two big runs and shot 6 of 24 in the first half with nine turnovers that Arizona turned into 12 points.
The desert Wildcats shook off their early offensive funk with an array of dunks and 3-pointers, racing past Weber State with runs of 14-2 and 13-3 to go up 32-20 at halftime.
Arizona looked as if it was going to run away with it early in the second half, only to watch Weber State scratch a huge lead to under double digits with 4 1-2 minutes left.
Arizona turned back every attempt Weber State made after that to pull out the victory, but will likely face more upset predictions in the next round after this one.