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UA improves NCAA hopes

Citizen Staff Writer




Arizona’s feel-good story continues.

The Wildcats have believers now. Fans are filling McKale Center and the national media is taking notice.

“There’s a lot more media here than there was a month ago,” said UA’s Chase Budinger, speaking of the packed media room after UA’s impressive 84-72 win over No. 11 UCLA on Saturday, which came less than 36 hours after beating visiting USC.

UA (18-8, 8-5) has seven consecutive wins, two victories shy of making it to 20 wins for the 21st time in 22 seasons.

The Wildcats have also inched themselves closer to a 25th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, something that was in doubt a month ago when UA was 11-8 and losing big to Houston before rallying to win.

Now, ESPN.com has UA as its team of the week.

“No team helped its NCAA Tournament case more than Arizona this week,” ESPN.com wrote. “The Wildcats have bankable nonconference wins over San Diego State, Gonzaga and Kansas. Sweeping USC and UCLA at home put the Wildcats at 8-5 in the Pac-10, 18-8 overall and in play for the Pac-10 title.”

Pac-10 title? Really? Well, Arizona is just two games behind league-leader Washington, which is 10-3, with UA headed to Seattle to face the Huskies in two weeks.

First up, however, is Arizona State on Sunday in Tempe.

Going eight days between games is tough since UA is playing so well right now, but UA interim coach Russ Pennell said the time will be used to get refreshed.

“For the last three weeks, we’ve mentally put a lot into it,” Pennell said.

Just three weeks ago, it would have perhaps been a dream for UA to be on a seven-game win streak this late in the year. But here they are, living la vida loca.

The fans “are having fun watching these guys,” Pennell said.

Pennell is having fun, too, according to his wife, Julie.

Winning tends to do that to fans, teams and coaches. What pleases Pennell the most – and he seems sincere – is that the team continues to practice hard and is determined to get better.

With three weeks left in the regular season that’s a good sign.

“All coaches like to play well at the end of the year,” Pennell said. “That’s when you want to play the best. You can’t get caught up in the streak.”

Arizona hasn’t had this type of success since the beginning of the 2006-07 season when it reeled off 12 straight after losing the season opener.

Everyone is taking notice, which makes Pennell a bit uncomfortable. He’d prefer for the team to remain “under the radar.”

But now, it’s all but unavoidable.

“I hope everyone forgets about us,” he said, tongue in cheek, “and leaves us alone. That’s what I would love to see.”

UA’s feel-good story continues


Arizona (18-8, 8-5) at Arizona State (20-5, 9-4)

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Where: Tempe


Radio: 1290 AM, 107.5 FM

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