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Arizona’s outright Pac-10 title: A special Saturday at McKale Center

Sean Miller holds aloft the net to represent Arizona's Pac-10 title.
Photo by Luke Adams, Arizona Athletics Photography

Arizona Wildcats sophomore Derrick Williams twirled a strand of the net in his right hand. A short time earlier, he and his teammates had cut down that net from the south basket of McKale Center.

“Amazing,” Williams said. “This is the reason why I came here.”

This is why they all come to Arizona. To be Pac-10 champions.

And to have the chance to do much, much more.

It was a day of celebration and possibilities at McKale as the Wildcats dispatched Oregon 90-82 on Saturday afternoon on national television. They finished the regular season at 25-6 overall and 14-4 in the Pac-10. They went 17-0 at home.

It is the 12th regular-season Pac-10 title in school history, the first since 2005.

All this in coach Sean Miller’s second season.

“This is just the first step,” Williams said. “Hopefully, we can get this Pac-10 tournament, too. One step at a time.”

It was one step up the ladder for all the Arizona players after the game. They each clipped a strand of the net, saving the last for coach Sean Miller, who tossed several pieces to the crowd. It was all scripted, complete with advertising on the ladder.

The impromptu moment had happened minutes earlier.

The players bolted from in front of their bench area, racing down the court to slap hands with the Zona Zoo student section. The Wildcats, led by point guard MoMo Jones, climbed the arena steps through the students and came back down the stairs amid the adoring mob.

“We just followed MoMo,” said sophomore forward Solomon Hill. “That was off his energy. He was just like, ‘We’re going to thank the Zona Zoo,’ and he just ran off. We followed him.”

Said Miller with a smile: “I’m glad nobody fell down and they got through it unscathed.”

More seriously, he added: “That’s the best feeling as a coach and a player when you see everybody share in the success. … It was just such a special moment.”

Could you have imagined this special moment two years ago? Miller said he couldn’t.

Arizona missed the NCAA Tournament last season, ending the program’s 25-year streak … but that was to be expected after Miller — the program’s fourth coach in four seasons — changed the offense, changed the defense and had to replenish the roster with five freshmen.

As with his players running through the Zona Zoo, the Arizona program has emerged unscathed.

No matter what happens over the next two (three, four?) weeks, the program is only going to get better from here.

Miller has restored order: 20-plus wins, sweeping ASU, a Pac-10 championship, an All-American player, a top five recruiting class …

Taking in the totality of the day, Miller said:

“I can’t imagine it being any better anywhere.”

Arizona’s performance Saturday was typical. The Wildcats used 10 players. All 10 scored. Six made 3-point baskets. Six scored in double figures. On the other hand, Arizona had trouble closing out a game after grabbing a big lead, and it couldn’t control the opposing post player, in this case Oregon’s Joevan Catron.

Miller will address those defensive concerns before Arizona begins play in the Pac-10 tournament on Thursday, but Saturday was a day for happier thoughts.

“Our team deserves a lot of credit,” he said.

“Why do we win, how do we win? It’s what I’ve said probably a thousand times. We have a team of interchangeable parts. We get a lot of contributions from a lot of guys.”

Williams, of course, has made the biggest contribution. The Zona Zoo, on three occasions, including as he was snipping the net, serenaded him with chants of “One more year, one more year.”

That very important matter is yet to be determined … or, at least, yet to be announced.

“I’m just trying to win now and focus on these wins coming up,” he said.

Even if he leaves, Williams’ legacy at Arizona is rock solid.

Nobody blamed the Wildcats for not making the NCAA Tournament last season. It’s this Pac-10 championship that comes as the surprise.

“Nobody wants to be remembered as the team that stopped the streak,” Williams said. “You want to be remembered as the team that started a new streak, a new era of Arizona basketball.”

And this new era looks an awful lot like the old era.

“There was magic in McKale Center during and after the game,” Miller said. “There are not a lot of better places to be in the country than on a Saturday with the Pac-10 champions.”

* * *

Below is an Arizona season highlight video. Click HERE for a look at the final version of the pregame video shown at McKale Center.

Still more: A hoops notebook from after the Oregon game. And, finally: UA’s 1997 national championship team to be inducted into Arizona Sports Hall of Fame.

CREDIT: Arizona Athletics
CAPTION: Highlights from Arizona's Pac-10 championship season.
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