SALT LAKE CITY — You've heard it many times before, and you'll no doubt hear it again:
It certainly mattered in Thursday's NCAA tournament matchup between a young, tall and talented Arizona team and the Belmont Bruins, the Ohio Valley Conference champions whose lineup looked more like cuddly little bear cubs compared to the imposing length that the towering Wildcats of the Pac-12 brought to the court at EnergySolutions Arena.
And Arizona took full advantage, using its superior size and strength to build what would be a whopping 44-18 rebounding margin and an imposing inside presence on both ends of the floor. Those things paved the way for an eventual 81-64 victory.
"We had a physical advantage in this game," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "It's one thing to have the advantage, and it's another to take advantage of it. That's what we did.
"I don't know if we outrebounded a team, at least in my time at Arizona, like that — 44 to 18 is pretty impressive. And it clearly was the difference in the game."
"That was a big factor going into the game," Arizona senior guard Mark Lyons said of the Wildcats' very sizable size advantage. "Coach made it a big issue for us to get the ball inside. Our size advantage was significant. That's why our rebounding advantage was so large today."
What's more, Arizona (26-7) poured in 36 points in the paint, had a dozen offensive rebounds that led to 17 second-chance points — Belmont scored a scant one of those — and the Wildcats also swatted away five shots and altered several others.
"As the game wore on, we really got the ball inside," Miller said. "And as we got the ball inside, a lot of good things followed."
Arizona's defensive effort forced the Bruins into taking a ton of low-percentage shots, particularly in the first half, when they missed 10 of their first 11 shots, wound up 7 of 27 (25.9 percent) and fell behind by 12, 32-20, at halftime.
"We approached this week with great focus on the defensive end," said Arizona sophomore spark plug guard Nick Johnson, who had a dozen points and five assists and keyed the Wildcats' defensive effort on Belmont star Ian Clark.
"Defensively they got guys that, even if you beat your man," Clark said, "they got guys that can come over and block shots. And, to their credit, they made those plays."
Arizona closed the first half on an 11-2 run, then opened the second half with a 9-3 spurt that extended its lead to 18 points, 41-23. Thanks to their season-best 67.9 percent second-half shooting, the Wildcats led by as many as 21, 64-43, before a 10-0 Belmont surge cut the gap to 11, 64-53. But the Bruins would get no closer.
Lyons scored 14 of his game-high 23 points in the second half, while 7-foot freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski had 12 points and eight rebounds as the Wildcats advanced to Saturday's field of 32 to face the winner of Thursday's late game between New Mexico and Harvard.
Arizona senior forward Kevin Parrom scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half to go along with eight boards. Senior forward Solomon Hill had more nine points, and a pair of promising freshmen, 6-8 forward Brandon Ashley and 6-10 forward/center Grant Jerrett, combined for 10 points and 13 rebounds to contribute to the Wildcats' wide advantage on the backboards.
For Belmont (26-7), the dynamic senior guard duo of Kerron Johnson (22) and Clark (21) combined for 43 points, while junior swingman JJ Mann contributed 13.
But nobody else managed more than six points for the Bruins, and their best rebounder was Trevor Noack with just four — a total matched or surpassed by six Arizona players.
"I think this was pretty simple — Arizona just outplayed us," said Belmont coach Rick Byrd. "They played a better game than we did. I can say that they made shots better than we did. They got better shots than we did.
"We really struggled offensively; I thought their defensive game plan was very good. ... They missed 14 shots in the first half and they got half of those (back on offensive rebounds) — gives them too many opportunities. And I think that hurt us all night long.
"I was more impressed with the team that I saw tonight than I was in scouting them," Byrd said. "I thought they were more engaged and more focused, and I think if they play that way they can beat a lot of people."
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