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Tribute blunted by loss, sinking NCAA chances

Citizen Staff Writer

It was hard to get the words to the Billy Joel song out of my head in the second half.

This is the time to remember

‘Cause it will not last forever.

That was the music accompanying a video tribute to former Arizona coach Lute Olson at halftime, and the ceremony could have been – should have been – the centerpiece to a UA basketball celebration and the march to a 25th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

Instead, it was Cal 83, Arizona 77, with little Bears point guard Jerome Randle shooting daggers into the Wildcats’ hearts as if he were Reggie Miller or Todd Lichti.

It was an old-school kind of night at McKale Center, but the Wildcats have reached a new era.

Change is coming. And change ain’t good.

All those images on the video – Bennett Davison mussing Lute’s hair after the 1997 national title, Lute hugging Bobbi, Tom Tolbert flipping an over-the-shoulder shot against North Carolina, Miles Simon’ 70-foot game-winner against Cincinnati – those are the times to remember.

They will not last forever.

UA favorite son Steve Kerr helped introduce Olson at halftime, reminding the crowd about the problems the coach inherited when he was stolen away from Iowa after the 1982-83 season.

It’s been so long ago that those young ‘uns in the student section, unless they have studied their UA history books, might not fully understand how bad it was.

“The team was awful,” Kerr told the 14,729 fans at McKale.

“Four wins. We had four wins the previous year before he got here. We were horrible. But Coach was such an amazing basketball coach, that in two years he had us in the NCAA Tournament.

“And in a couple of weeks,” Kerr added, “we’re going to make it 25 years in a row.”

Applause, applause, applause.

That could have been the quote of the night.

But then Arizona lost.

The Wildcats can only finish 9-9 in the Pac-10, and that’s if they beat Stanford on Saturday. Only one team in Pac-10 history has earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament with a 9-9 league mark: Oregon last season, when the conference was as strong as it had ever been.

Arizona needed a win in the worst way Thursday night, but when it fell behind by eight points with 44 seconds left, it needed another McClutch, Craig McMillan.

It needed a coast-to-coast Khalid Reeves’ dash, like he made against Stanford. Something like the Chris Mills’ jumper to beat UCLA.

But even with Lute sitting courtside with university president Robert Shelton, there was no residual magic, no miracle at McKale.

Just another tough loss in a season of tough losses.

Interim head coach Russ Pennell, hired as an assistant last spring, deserves better because he has kept the Wildcats together amid trying times. He ran across court before the game to shake Olson’s hand.

“I just said thank you for bringing me here and giving me an opportunity to coach at Arizona,” Pennell said. “I kidded him, and said, ‘If you want to, you can come over here and help us.’ ”

But it was Pennell, not Olson, who was stomping at the refs all game. Olson’s only on-court appearance was at halftime, joined by family and more than a dozen ex-players.

As Olson took the microphone at midcourt, the student section unveiled two banners that ran the length of the aisles behind the north basket.

One said, “We love you.” The other said, “Thank you.”

Olson, wearing his classic blue blazer, khaki pants, white shirt and red tie, thanked the fans for all their support through 24 seasons. Looking good and sounding strong, Olson talked for less than a minute.

“I really appreciate the fans that have made this the toughest place in America to come in as an opponent and play,” Olson said.

“And keep up that kind of support. This is a basketball town.”

Deliberately slowing his cadence in a manner of a father encouraging and admonishing his children, he added: “And keep it that way.”

Olson deserved the recognition, and so much more. But given the game result – and what it all means to UA’s postseason chances – the night ended up merely bittersweet.

This basketball town has seen 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

Those are the times to remember. No. 25 might never arrive.

Anthony Gimino’s e-mail:


For Cats, it’s another tough loss in a season of them


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