The door to the Arizona locker room opened, and there was Chase Budinger, left arm around Jamelle Horne, talking quietly. Horne was crying.
You could have sworn Arizona was due for a happy ending, one of those jumping-around, chest-thumping, screaming-at-the-top-of-your lungs kind of moments.
The Wildcats can use a few of those.
Instead of a celebratory party, UA has to make sure not to throw a pity party.
In one of the most inexplicable endings seen in McKale Center – you really can’t make up the stuff that has happened around the program in the past year – Arizona lost 72-71 to UAB when Horne lunged after a player to commit an intentional foul about 60 feet away from the basket with 0.8 seconds left.
Really. Paul Delaney III hit the first of two free throws for the winning point.
Just like that, an impressive UA rally – the Cats trailed by nine with 4:36 left – was wiped out and buried under a mountain of understandable fan frustration.
“This goes to show the character of the team,” senior forward Fendi Onobun said.
He was talking about the comeback, about never giving up and all of that.
But if there is any character with this team, it needed to start in the locker room. Perhaps it did. It absolutely has to.
As Horne went off to the showers, Budinger sat at his locker and talked to a semicircle of the media. He’s a team leader. This is what he has to do. To explain losses.
Budinger, perhaps in vain but to his credit, tried to take some of the blame for Horne’s brain freeze.
“You could say it was a situation where Jamelle got confused, but I kind of take some fault for it,” Budinger said. “Being a leader on the court, I have to be focused, especially during the end of the game. I should have really been on top of that and let the guys know not to foul. . . .
“I was out of the play. I was just hoping Jamelle would fall and not touch the guy.”
There were still several reporters around when Horne returned from the showers, dressing silently in front of his locker. Budinger, still policing the locker room, politely exhorted the media to leave him alone.
Horne, to his credit, agreed to take questions. He spoke for about 80 seconds before associate head coach Mike Dunlap cut it off.
Horne’s play was baffling, and he didn’t really have time to get around to explaining if he thought there was more time left than there was, or he didn’t realize the score was tied . . . or whatever.
In any case, he’s a starting sophomore forward – a decent complement to the scoring of Budinger, Jordan Hill and Nic Wise – who is slated to play about 35 minutes a game.
Arizona needs him.
If the Cats are a band of brothers, this is the time to show it.
“I told him I’m here for him,” Onobun said. “You can’t put all the weight on him. The game is not based on that sole possession. I told him I’m there for him and to not take the heat. It is all of our faults.”
A few minutes later, interim head coach Russ Pennell talked to reporters in a McKale Center interview room, trying to come to terms with a painful, inexplicable loss that dropped the Wildcats to 1-1 and prevented them from advancing to New York City for the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off.
“I want it to sting. I want it to hurt,” Pennell said.
“It hurts me. It hurts our staff. Kids are in there, bawling their eyes out. To me, I like that. I like it because I know they care, and they want to do better.”
As teams often do early in the season, the Wildcats have talked about better team chemistry, but that stuff often lasts only until the first major adversity hits.
Last season, Arizona seemed to hold together for about 20 games.
This season, adversity hit after the second game.
Pennell talks about this being a learning moment – that maybe now the players will understand the attention to detail required every moment of every practice.
Too bad this had to happen for it to come to that.
Lack of focus, overconfidence, the idea you can be UA basketball without putting in all the hard work . . . those have all been problems of recent UA teams.
That’s for Pennell to address as the season heads down the road.
For now, for the team, Horne needs a little love . . . and then probably a good kick in the rear.
“I think he will recover fine because we will spend a lot of time with him,” Pennell said. “His teammates will spend a lot of time with him. We talked about that. We don’t leave each other’s side.”