SALT LAKE CITY -- Mark Lyons has been to the Sweet 16 before. But earning another trip, with his new team, felt different Saturday -- maybe even a bit more special -- because of the position he plays.
“I’m the point guard now,” the Arizona senior (and former guard at Xavier) said after he tied his career high with 27 points to help beat Harvard 74-51. “Last year I was playing off the ball with a great point guard, and I learned from him. And now, I’m back … we’re back.”
The 6-foot-1 playmaker made sure the Wildcats were back -- and on to Los Angeles for the West Regional semifinal -- by pumping up his defense as well as making 12 of 17 field goals.
Lyons and the Wildcats controlled the game from the get-go. While the 14th-seeded Crimson missed shot after shot -- their first 13, to be exact -- sixth-seeded Arizona built a 17-2 lead. Lyons had seven points before Harvard freshman point guard Siyani Chambers finally buried the Crimson’s first field goal, a 3, with 12:16 left in the first half. But the Wildcats led by as many as 22 before taking a 40-22 halftime lead.
“I think in order for us to make this a magical moment for our team and program -- which we have been able to do at other points in this season -- you’ve got to get off to a good start against a team like that,” said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, whose team shot just 27.6 percent against the taller, more aggressive, more confident-looking Wildcats. “We had our chances. We had some open opportunities early, and once we missed some we kind of got our heads down and they took advantage of it.”
Indeed, even when Harvard tried to chip back -- and Chambers got a chipped tooth in the process -- Lyons was there, doing what a point guard does: leading.
When a Chambers 3 cut the deficit to 44-30 with 17:22 to go, Lyons made a layup.
And when two free throws by Harvard’s Wesley Saunders cut it to 16 with 13:16 left? Lyons scored on another drive.
Harvard never really threatened, but key for the Wildcats was that they never allowed it.
“When we got the lead, Coach [Sean Miller] said, ‘Don’t let up. Don’t start walking the ball up,’ because we have a tendency to let up,” Lyons said.
Not this time.
Lyons also finished with three assists, two turnovers, a steal and a rebound. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he now will become the first player ever to compete in the Sweet 16 in back-to-back years with different teams. He also played on two Xavier squads that reached the Sweet 16, and practiced with another when he was a partial qualifier as a freshman.
“I think it’s remarkable, really,” Miller said. “It shows you how talented he is, and it also shows you the bigger the game, [it] can really bring out the best in him.”
Lyons, who averaged about 15 points during the regular season, is now averaging 25 points in this year’s NCAA tournament. And he thinks the best is yet to come.
“You know, it’s a great feeling,” Lyons said. “I’m playing for my original coach who recruited me, playing with a bunch of guys who believe in me and got faith in me. We’ve been coming together as a team. It’s great to be back in the Sweet 16 and trying to advance.”