SALT LAKE CITY — Two of the best players ever to come out of the country of Finland played their college basketball in Utah. BYU fans fondly remember Timo Saarelainen, who played for BYU back in the early '80s, while Utah fans recall how Hanno Mottola starred on some of the best Ute teams ever in the late '90s.
Local basketball fans may have seen an even better Finnish player during Thursday night’s NCAA first-round matchup between Arizona and North Dakota at Vivint Arena.
Lauri Markkanen, a 7-foot freshman forward from Jyvaskyla, Finland, showed why he’s already made several all-American teams this year and could be in the NBA someday soon as he led Arizona to a 100-82 victory over North Dakota.
Arizona, which improved to 55-30 all-time in NCAA games, will play Saint Mary’s Saturday at 5:45 p.m. MT.
Markkanen did most of his work early as he scored 16 of his 20 points in the first half to stake the Wildcats to a 16-point lead at 53-37. For the game, Markkanen made 8 of his 12 field goals and was 4-for-4 from the foul line and had all six of his rebounds in the first half.
Then he let teammates Rawle Alkins (18 points) Allonzo Trier (16), Dusan Ristic (12) and Kadeem Allen (10) pick up the slack in the second half as the Wildcats opened up their lead after North Dakota pulled within seven at one point.
Markkanen scored six early points for the Wildcats then scored 10 in a four-minute stretch late in the first half when they extended their lead to 16. He was quiet for much of the second half before finishing his scoring with an emphatic dunk.
Arizona coach Sean Miller pulled Markkanen for good with 5:48 left and his team up by 20 points to give him some extra rest before Saturday’s game against Saint Mary’s.
“He was terrific,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller, who also praised freshman Alkins. “I thought they were the most consistent players on our team and made big plays when we needed it. I wish we would have done a better job of getting the ball to Lauri in the second half. Although he didn’t score as much in the second half, we didn’t get him the ball enough. They did a lot of things to take him out of it.
“But we did a lot of good things as a team tonight and Lauri was obviously a big part of that.”
Markkanen had gone through a rough stretch in the middle of the Pac-12 season when he didn’t hit double figures for five straight games, but he came on strong in the Pac-12 Tournament when he averaged 20 points in three games and helped lead his team to the title.
“I have to credit my teammates for finding me tonight and getting me the ball,” said Markkanen. “Tonight we had to get stops. Good defense stops a good offense.”
The Wildcats seemed to be on cruise control in taking a 53-37 halftime lead, but the Fighting Hawks kept chipping away and pulled within seven points at 68-61 with 11:56 left after a basket by Drick Bernstine. But then Arizona got serious and ran off 12 straight points to put the game away.
North Dakota was led by Quinton Hooker with 25 points and Bernstine with 20. Arizona shot 58.1 percent from the field and outrebounded North Dakota 40-31. This was North Dakota's first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Arizona and Saint Mary’s haven’t played since 2005 when the Wildcats took a 75-61 victory. Arizona leads the series 4-2.