Citizen Staff Writer
MORE UA BASKETBALL COVERAGE, 1C, 4-5C
Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell does it dozens of times every game.
The Wildcats will be bringing the basketball up court, and the coach will be pounding his chest with his right fist.
It’s just a reminder to the players that someone has to set an on-ball screen for point guard Nic Wise, a staple of the Wildcats’ motion offense.
“I probably do it more out of habit,” Pennell said. “They know it. They’re like, ‘Crap, Coach, you called that nine times in the huddle.’ ”
I prefer to think of Pennell’s chest-thumping as a multiple reminder of what this team has in ever-increasing hungry-man portions: heart.
In one of the craziest little ol’ basketball games you ever did see, with big runs, sizzling shooting and dueling comebacks, Arizona was the last team standing Thursday night, beating USC 83-76 at McKale Center.
“I thought in many ways, this might be one of our most rewarding wins,” said Pennell, whose Wildcats improved to 17-8 overall, 7-5 in Pac-10 play.
“We had the lead, lost it and just had the resolve to come back and play these guys as tough as we did. I thought it was a great character win.”
Character: A fearless Wise scoring 11 points with two steals in the final 5:38.
Character: Chase Budinger, continuing his attack-the-basket theme, scoring 25 points. He is averaging 22.2 points in the past five games.
Character: Jordan Hill, who wasn’t 100 percent after tweaking an ankle in the first half, never coming out in the second half and hustling to the perimeter to contest – and perhaps alter – Dwight Lewis’ potential game-tying 3-pointer with about 20 seconds left.
“You could just tell with the way he was running and his facial expressions that he was hurting pretty bad, but he competed for us,” Budinger said of Hill.
“He really manned up for us tonight, especially in the second half.
“He played like a beast, especially in that last couple of minutes.”
With the refuse-to-shave Cats riding a six-game winning streak, there are only four words left to say.
Bring. On. The. Bruins.
Eleventh-ranked UCLA, a rival-turned-nemesis, comes to McKale Center for a Saturday morning honest-to-goodness, just-like-old-times Big Game. CBS will telecast the game to more than 80 percent of the country.
Didn’t think we’d see a game of this kind again for . . . well, years.
A victory would be huge for Arizona’s NCAA Tournament hopes, but here’s the quick history lesson: The Bruins have won eight in a row against the Wildcats, including five by double-digit margins, including an 83-60 smackdown at Pauley Pavilion last month.
“I just feel we’re a better team now,” said Budinger, a San Diego native. “Our defense has improved tremendously, and we’re starting to get out on the offensive end.
“We’re just a totally better team.”
“Chemistry is the hardest thing to find in sports,” Pennell said.
“But when you find it, you can do great things with it. And right now our chemistry is really good. . . . We’ve got guys in a real comfort zone right now.”
UCLA has a way of making chaos of UA’s comfort zone.
Taking a look at the past eight games of the series, the Bruins have a big statistical edge in two areas: 3-point shooting and rebounding.
UCLA has made 54 shots behind the arc in that span. Arizona has just 24.
UCLA has outrebounded Arizona in seven of the eight games.
UCLA, generally, has been the team that played harder, tougher, grittier . . . the team that played like an actual team.
But these scruffy Cats aren’t those old shabby Cats.
Arizona has heart and a heartbeat.
“When you play UCLA, you are going to have to win the hustle points,” Pennell said.
“They’re going to be hard-nosed, and you have to be hard-nosed. . . . The big thing with them is just make sure your intensity level is matching or exceeding theirs, and then you can hang in there.
“The first time we played, we didn’t have that.”
Shouldn’t be a problem Saturday.
Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
UA’s ‘character’ win sets stage for UCLA