Citizen Staff Writer
WASHINGTON, D.C. – All season UA persevered through some tough times.
Many times it wasn’t pretty, as the Wildcats stumbled to a 19-15 record.
It started when Lute Olson asked for and received a leave of absence on Nov. 4 and continued when UA went through a number of injuries to key players such as guards Nic Wise and Jerryd Bayless.
Kevin O’Neill took over as interim coach for UA, whose season ended Thursday with a 75-65 loss to West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“It was definitely a tough season,” Bayless said. “It was a team with a lot of ups and downs. We went through a lot of things – from the whole coaching change to the injuries.
“We had to battle through a lot of things. With all the things we had to go through, we had a successful season.”
Said senior Jawann McClellan: “It was tough not knowing who was going to be your coach; you’re expecting one guy to be your coach and all of sudden he’s not around and then there was nothing said about the situation.
“I think we handled it good all year long or as best as we could for young men our age. I think a lot of people grew up with what happened to us this year.”
Sophomore Chase Budinger agreed, saying it was a “very difficult year.”
“Wins and losses – everything,” he said. “It was a roller coaster ride for us. It felt like that – a grind-out season.”
Fighting to the end
McClellan went down fighting, playing sound defense on West Virginia’s best player, Joe Alexander.
Alexander had 14 points but went 4 for 12 from the floor.
“I tried to take him out of the game the best I could,” McClellan said.
“He’s a tough load, but they proved they could win without him. Their shooters made a lot of 3s.”
Playing through pain
Wise suffered a sprained ankle in the first half but returned to play 38 total minutes.
“It was tough (to play through it) at first,” he said. “But it got stronger and stronger as the game went on. It was tough to get over, but my teammates picked me up.”
He finished with 12 points, hitting 3 of 5 three-pointers to keep UA close.
O’Neill took offense to a question on whether UA’s loss was a case of X’s and O’s or the players not executing that proved to be the difference on defense.
“Are you asking if I blame me or should I blame the players,” O’Neill asked. “I’ll take the blame if that’s what you want. I’ll do that. It’s X’s and O’s. I do think we could have done a better job. I’m not going to sit here and blame the players.
“I’m not doing that under any circumstances. These guys gave it all all year and we just didn’t have enough tonight.”
Another early exit
Arizona’s run of 24 straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament is the longest current run in the nation, but this was the 10th time during the streak that the Wildcats exited in the opening round.
The defeat also ended Arizona’s run of 20 consecutive 20-win seasons, the longest streak of its kind in the nation. The Wildcats entered with 14 losses, equaling the most for an at-large team since 1985.