Citizen Staff Writer
ARIZONA WILDCATS BASKETBALL
TEMPE – After the last time Arizona lost to Arizona State, I wrote, how much to my chagrin, the Wildcats’ season was o-v-e-r.
I don’t think I was alone in that sentiment – and I know some around the UA program (who must remain nameless) who professed to the same feeling – but UA has been so good in the ensuing month that a second loss to Arizona State, while painful as lemon juice in a thousand paper cuts, isn’t a killer.
In other words, the season is not o-v-e-r just because the Sun Devils pulled out a rousing 70-68 victory Sunday night at Wells Fargo Arena after UA came all the way back – and then some – from a 17-point second-half deficit.
Sure, it’s a gut punch for Arizona fans, so accustomed to toying with the maroon and gold for more than two decades – thanks, Lute – but you can’t win ‘em all and the season moves on.
All the rivalry stuff aside, never mind the consternation over ASU’s four consecutive last-minute victories against two different UA interim head coaches, I think it’s easier today than yesterday to feel good about these Wildcats.
“We like to fight,” said junior forward Chase Budinger.
Arizona was down 56-39 with 13:02 to go after a two-handed jam by ASU’s Jeff Pendergraph, and that seemed to be a full graduate-level test of UA’s fight.
The atmosphere in sold-out Wells Fargo Arena was electric, with some long-time observers around these parts saying it was the loudest, most rockingest crowd here since the mid-1980s or so.
Time to start the buses and head back to Tucson?
“I didn’t think we’ve really folded at any point this season. I really don’t,” said UA interim coach Russ Pennell. “Even when we lost at UNLV or UCLA, we just got beat. I haven’t really seen our guys mail it in, and that’s one of the things I’m proudest of in them – just their mental approach to games.
“The thing I like about our guys is they never feel they’re out of a game. And we didn’t just come back, we came back and took the lead. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to hold it, but it was more than just a token comeback.”
You gotta think the entire past month has been more than a token comeback.
After the first loss to ASU and my premature proclamation, Arizona needed to go 8-3 in the rest of the Pac-10 regular season to finish at 10-8, thereby having a realistic shot at the NCAA Tournament.
It didn’t seem to add up, and that mountain seemed too high.
After a seven-game winning streak – including six in conference – UA turned its mountain into a molehill. Not even a loss to ASU much changes the formula.
An arduous trip to the Washington schools awaits this week, and the Wildcats could use a quality road win or two for their résumé.
After that comes a home set against Cal and Stanford to end the regular season. But that 8-3 gauntlet has turned into 2-2. Doable. Very doable.
Why quit now? Face it, this team’s M.O. in recent seasons has been to fade and fold, part of the reason for the lack of faith when the record drooped to 11-8. But if the ol’ disappearing act hasn’t happened yet, it’s just not going to happen.
“It was a disappointing loss, but we really showed our toughness in the second half to slowly get back in the game and have a chance to win at the end,” Budinger said. “We’re never going to give up.”
Arizona stood in against 14th-ranked ASU and counter-punched to take a 62-60 lead before the teams battled back and forth in the final few minutes. Ultimately, it ended with the Devils making one more key play in the final minute to win their fourth in a row over UA for the first time since 1983.
“I’m realistic enough to realize that this game and the previous three could have easily gone the other way,” said ASU coach Herb Sendek. “And I would be sitting here, having lost the last four, and you’re saying, ‘What’s the matter? You stink.’ ”
Arizona fans might spend the next 11 months or so fretting about suddenly being on the wrong side of the rivalry – I guess ASU has finally made it one – but the team won’t spend much more than a bus ride worrying about it.
There is a lot of season left, starting Thursday at Washington State.
There should be lots more fun before UA is done. Unless I’m wrong again.
Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cats still in hunt for NCAAs