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Cats are riding a crest

Citizen Staff Writer



You’d have to search far and wide to find anyone who has been more realistic about his situation than Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell.

He knew what his Wildcats were up against to begin the season: little depth, a plethora of freshmen, an unknown interim coach, a new system and the hurt of having a Hall of Fame coach leaving . . . again.

“When we started,” Pennell asked on Friday, “how much was really expected? We were hoping we didn’t embarrass people. Even the fans – they weren’t disrespectful – but (to them) it was wait and see. And I don’t blame them.”

No one knew what would happen. But in the last month, things clicked.

Maybe it was the step on the face UA’s Chase Budinger received against Houston on Jan. 24.

“That cheap shot kind of ignited this momentum,” said UCLA coach Ben Howland. “They all rallied around that game. I’m glad they won that game.”

Maybe it was Howland’s Bruins that helped ignite UA’s fire, too, after the Cats fell 83-60 in what has been UA’s biggest loss of the season.

Maybe it was hearing Jordan Hill feel and eventually say they were playing for themselves. After all, look what they had already been through, he pointed out.

Now, UA is riding a six-game winning streak, becoming the only team in the Pacific 10 Conference to win five consecutive conference games this season. Howland was the first to point that out on Friday. His team would have done that had it not lost to Arizona State 74-67 on Thursday.

“(Pennell) has done a great job,” Howland said. “Mike Dunlap (UA’s associate head coach) has a lot of influence with this team. Their efforts have been great. They’re playing well.”

The difference is confidence, UA’s Chase Budinger said.

He might want to include poise, persistence and a certain grit. Arizona, even though it didn’t always show it, has long had it, Pennell said. But now, the Cats are winning the hustle points, going after loose balls more, getting after it on the defensive end with more intensity and, perhaps, just overall getting it.

After losing to UCLA in January, UA also may have gotten what it takes to be a tough team. Since then, Pennell has said – a number of times – that UA has played its best basketball, even if there were two losses since (USC, Arizona State). But that practice in between the UCLA and USC losses last month, “set the tone.” UA worked overtime, and had to be kicked out of USC’s Galen Center.

The team “has taken off from there,” Pennell said.

Now comes the toughest test in UCLA. Beat the No. 11 Bruins and arrival seems a certainty.

Is it do or die? Pennell said no, but a win would get his team closer to the NCAA Tournament.

“They were playing as good as anyone in America going into that game,” Pennell said of UCLA before the ASU game. “I still think they’re good. It was an interesting game (against ASU), a hard-fought game. UCLA is still the best team in the league.

“Those four letters mean a lot to everyone in America and our guys certainly understand this is a big challenge. They are looking forward to it. The fact that we’re playing well should give them confidence, at least they can compete.”

A month ago, when UA lost five of seven games, there was some question whether it could compete.

That is not the case any longer.

Steve Rivera’s e-mail:



No. 11 UCLA (19-5, 8-3) at Arizona (17-8, 7-5)

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

TV: CBS Radio: 1290 AM, 107.5 FM


> UA-UCLA breakdown, rosters, stats

> UA’s latest commitment

> UA women play USC on Sunday

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