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Twelfth’s night: Cats get laugh at critics

Citizen Staff Writer

Two of the major sports Internet sites used the same headline after Arizona’s victory over Utah: They belong.

A bit obvious, but, considering the tight word count, it’ll do nicely.

Much of the national media was at its snarky best during the week, picking apart the Wildcats for being an unworthy at-large selection, branding Arizona as being lucky to be in the NCAA Tournament for the 25th consecutive season.

“You know, all the people that were saying that we weren’t going to make it, we just tried ignoring that,” forward Chase Budinger said at Friday’s postgame news conference. “Once our name went up on the board, that was pretty much it.”

Not much need to say anything else about it.

Arizona’s play did its talking.

The 12th-seeded Wildcats, with start-to-finish defensive intensity, pounced on No. 5 seed Utah and then repelled a late charge, winning a first-round game 84-71 in Miami.

“As far as us belonging here, we definitely belong here, and today was not about proving that,” interim head coach Russ Pennell said after the game.

“That was not our motivation. Our motivation was to win the game and move on in this national tournament.”

The season marches happily along.

The primary goal of UA’s season was to preserve the NCAA Tournament streak, which is the second longest ever, behind a 27-year run by North Carolina.

This is gravy. This is house money.

Arizona already had gotten farther than I thought it could after Lute Olson’s retirement last October. I penciled the Cats in for 17 victories and no NCAA Tournament.

They are up to 20 victories and Sunday’s second-round meeting against surprising 13th-seeded Cleveland State, which routed fourth-seeded Wake Forest on Friday night.

I didn’t doubt UA’s front-line talent. Few teams have a point guard, a wing and big man like Arizona’s Nic Wise, Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill.

I figured the cumulative emotional toll of unexpectedly not having Olson around for either of the past two seasons ultimately would unhinge the Wildcats. Like it did last season.

Not this time. Not to this team.

Just two seasons ago Purdue upset Arizona in the first round. Even after the game, the Wildcats remained shocked they lost to a less-talented – but harder-working – team. It would be Olson’s last game.

This is what I wrote at the time:

“It took only a few minutes of Friday’s game to realize that the Boilermakers, a self-described group of overachievers, were tougher, peskier and played the unrelenting brand of defense Arizona hasn’t much bothered to attempt since the 2001 season. You knew it was trouble. . .

“Scrappy little Purdue is the team UA should be whenever it decides to grow up.”

I then quoted Jawann McClellan as saying this about Purdue:

“Coach Olson would love to coach a team like that.”

And now Pennell does.

Given its talent, nobody would label Arizona as overachievers, but on Friday night, the Wildcats were tougher, peskier and played the unrelenting brand of defense Arizona hasn’t much bothered to attempt since the 2001 season.

From the opening tip, the Wildcats pressed and trapped and attacked Utah’s insufficient ball-handling skills. Just as Pennell and associate head coach Mike Dunlap drew it up this week.

“Our practices weren’t easy this week,” freshman guard Kyle Fogg said on the postgame radio show. “We really, really got after it.”

I’d say Arizona has grown up.

That, sometimes, is the upshot of adversity.

It’s hard to overestimate the degree of difficulty for Arizona, which has had three coaches in three seasons, is running its third offense in three seasons and is using its third defense in three seasons.

You can either come together or come apart.

“I just felt that we overcame adversity again,” Wise said Friday, “and proved that we really should be in the tournament.”

Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com – an easy target because he’s never short on opinion – wrote on Sunday:

“Arizona? In the NCAA tournament? The selection committee did a fine job this year with the exception of Arizona, which belonged in the NIT, and not among the NIT’s top 10 teams, either. Arizona. Jeez.”

Five days later, CBSSports.com led with a “They belong” headline.

No doubt.

Anthony Gimino’s e-mail

Twelfth’s night: Cats laugh at critics after beating No. 5 seed Utah

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