Citizen Staff Writer
CHICAGO – Arizona coach Lute Olson said he recruited Houston native Nic Wise because he’s a proven winner.
Interim head coach Kevin O’Neill echoes that sentiment and more.
“Nic is an energy guy,” O’Neill said. “And defensively he’s been really good.”
Saturday proved just that, as the sophomore came off the bench to help No. 22-ranked Arizona down Illinois 78-72 in overtime at the United Center.
Wise, the smallest player on the court at 5 foot 10, had a big impact in a game that saw Arizona stars Chase Budinger and Jerryd Bayless struggle until late in regulation.
In 35 minutes, Wise had 11 points, eight assists, four rebounds, three steals and just one turnover.
He also made the defensive stop of the game when he tipped and stole the ball from Illinois guard Chester Frazier with 0:02 left and the score tied at 61 in regulation. Wise then caught a break when an official ignored his apparent signal for a timeout UA did not have.
“A lot of times people think (short) guys are a liability because they are short, but I don’t,” O’Neill said. “In the time I’ve known him, Nic plays really hard. He wants to get better, and he wants to win. He’s a very big part of our team.”
Wise will continue to come off the bench, adding a spark and spunk to a lineup that has needed it after some poor starts, including Saturday’s, when UA trailed Illinois 12-0.
“I don’t know what the hell is going on with us,” O’Neill said. “But we’re down all the time. We’ve got to cure that.”
The cure might be Wise, who has shown enough poise to settle the team down in tough spots.
“We need Nic,” said Bayless, UA’s starting guard. “Nic comes off the bench and gives us a boost. He makes plays for us.”
Wise nailed a three-pointer to tie the score at 16 and later added a driving layup, a jump shot and free throws in the second half to help rally the Cats.
“He’s done a wonderful job of energizing us,” O’Neill said. “He settles us (down).”
That may be the most notable thing about Wise, outside of the obvious 25-pound drop in weight from a season ago.
“He’s a leader,” said guard Jawann McClellan. “He’s more vocal than Staf (Mustafa Shakur) was at the same stage. Staf grew up and became a leader, but Nic has been a good vocal leader.”
Wise has said most of his confidence comes from the coaching staff, although O’Neill wouldn’t have been happy had the guard been flagged with a technical for calling a timeout late in regulation.
After stripping the ball from Frazier, Wise appeared to look to referee Kevin Mathis for a timeout, but wasn’t given one.
“I was going to (ask for time), but I pulled back,” Wise said. “I knew we didn’t have any timeouts, so . . . I pulled back.”
Said O’Neill: “That would have been grounds for murder.”
Illinois coach Bruce Weber protested to referees, but later said, “It would have been a tough call. I would have felt bad for the kid.”
Wise has said, “I hate to lose.”
In Houston, his Kingwood High team won 85 percent of its games (131-23) for the most wins in Texas Class 5A history over four years.
“When I was younger I’d cry when I lost,” Wise said. “I always remember that. So when I play, I always play my hardest.”
He’s grown out of crying after a defeat. Now, it’s just a sense of disappointment.
“When you lose, it messes with your schooling and daily life,” he said. “So it’s always good to go out and play hard.”
Budinger said Wise is playing with “more tenacity.”
“He’s really in there pestering their guards,” Budinger said. “He’s worked into coach O’Neill’s philosophy of defense. (On Saturday) he was feeling it because he really took over.”
It’s a quality O’Neill, the players and Wildcats fans want to see more of this season.
Steve Rivera’s e-mail: email@example.com
BY THE NUMBERS
3: Rebound edge (33-30) for UA, despite having a smaller lineup against Illinois
23: Points by Jordan Hill, a career high; he also had 14 rebounds
25: Free throws made by UA in 32 attempts; Illinois was 10 of 22
AT THE WATER COOLER
Each Monday, Sportswriter Steve Rivera will throw out topics being discussed in the community. Go to Page 2C for the feature’s debut.
Sunday: Fresno State (5-4) at No. 22 Arizona (6-2), 1 p.m., McKale Center TV: FSNA Radio: 1290 AM, 107.5 FM, 990 AM (Spanish)
• UA gets revenge against Illini, 6C
• Top 25 roundup, 6C