Citizen Staff Writer
ARIZONA 69, SAN DIEGO STATE 56
Arizona held a small lead late in the game, which is just about the time it would have been natural to get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.
The Wildcats, inventors of ingenious ways to lose games over the past few years, coming off a game in which it did everything wrong down the stretch, was right back in another pressure situation Wednesday night.
Arizona led a good San Diego State team by four points with just over three minutes left.
What would happen now?
Missed free throws? Silly fouls? Throwing the ball away in the backcourt? Poor shot selection? A missed one-handed dunk from Jordan Hill?
Actually, that last thing happened – and Nic Wise turned the ball over on a palming call – so not everything was perfect.
But the news was that Arizona didn’t collapse, choke, wilt or play scared.
The Cats went on an 11-0 run to slam the door on the Aztecs 69-56, and maybe found that late-game happy place that was absent against Texas A&M last Friday night.
Arizona needed something to temper the memory of that game and an earlier loss to UAB, when Jamelle Horne intentionally fouled a player with less than a second left in a tied game.
“Finishing up this game has to help our confidence,” said interim head coach Russ Pennell. “Especially coming off the Texas A&M game because the situations were very similar.”
Arizona led by four with 2:20 to go against the Aggies last week, but missed consecutive front ends of one-and-one free throw opportunities, and then let Nathan Walkup get an open 3-pointer, which he buried for the winning points with 20 seconds left.
“One of the things we talked about after the Texas A&M game was that I thought we didn’t play that game out and play to win it,” Pennell said.
“It was kind of like, ‘Can we hold on and just get out of here with a win.’ Tonight, I thought we were like, ‘We’re going to kick this door in and we’re going to take this thing. We’re not going to sit back.’ ”
Arizona has tasted that feeling; now it has to bottle it.
“It took a lot of weight off our shoulders,” Hill said.
The Wildcats have 23 games left, and give or take a couple of blowouts either way, they are all going to be like this. Arizona needed to get this winning feeling sooner rather than later, especially with Gonzaga, UNLV and Kansas remaining in the pre-Christmas gantlet.
Getting over the hump in a late-game situation didn’t just happen. The change in attitude, the ability to be the aggressor, didn’t come from any magic words from Pennell during a timeout.
It started in Sunday’s practice, the team’s first after the loss at Texas A&M.
“We started the practice horrible,” Pennell said.
“That was the first time we (the coaches) really got after them. We ran them, we did some stuff to get their attention. I think they saw that we mean business.
“I hope that those are the type of things that let them know if we fight, if we claw, if we scratch, we have a chance to win just about every game we play.”
San Diego State freshman forward Tim Shelton said Arizona was “by far, the most athletic team we have played,” which is noteworthy because the Aztecs lost at home to Arizona State.
But Arizona didn’t win Wednesday night because it was more athletic than the Aztecs, the favorite to win the Mountain West Conference and pretty athletic in their own right. The Cats won because of the fighting, clawing and scratching.
“I just think that was playing defense,” forward Jamelle Horne said of the late-game success.
“We talked about improving our defense in the locker room, so that’s what we came out and did. We played hard.”
Combine “playing hard” with “playing to win” late in games, and the Wildcats just might be on to something. Now, they’ll have to do it over and over and over again.
“I thought our guys, especially in the second half, battled and were outstanding on the defensive end, which I can’t believe is coming out of my mouth,” Pennell said. “I’m proud of them.”
Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org