The most comforting sight in the Arizona Wildcats’ high-wire act is senior point guard Mark Lyons with his feet at the free throw line.
In each of the past three games, all thrillers, all victories for third-ranked UA, Lyons has been at the line with just a handful of ticks left on the clock.
On Saturday, he made 2 of 2 free throws with 7.2 seconds remaining to give Arizona a 60-57 lead against Utah. That ended up being the final score when the Utes missed a 3-pointer as time ran out.
“Making clutch free throws is not an easy thing,” said UA coach Sean Miller, whose team is 14-0. “He’s made them now for 14 straight games.”
Oh, Miller sells Lyons short. This has been going on for more than 14 games.
It’s not just that Lyons is 10 of 10 at the line in the final minute of games this season for Arizona; it’s that he was this way at Xavier last season, too.
Get this: Going back to the fourth game of last season, Lyons has made 23 consecutive free throws in the final minute of games.
“One thing about Mark Lyons, when the chips are down, he believes in himself,” Miller said.
“If he misses, it’s not going to be because he’s nervous. I knew that about him. I think part of his characteristic of being that way spreads through the team. He has a group of guys that believe along with him that we can win.”
Here are the five situations this season in which Lyons has gone 2-for-2 from line in the final minute of games:
* Charleston Southern — 41 seconds left, Arizona up 80-70. Cats win 82-73.
* Southern Miss — 25 seconds left, Arizona up 61-53. UA wins 63-55.
* San Diego State — 13.1 seconds left, Aztecs leading 67-66. Lyons provides the winning points in a 68-67 decision.
* Colorado — 9.2 seconds left, Colorado up 80-78. Lyons ties the game as a prelude to the controversial replay review of Sabatino Chen’s 3-pointer at the end of regulation. Arizona wins 92-83 in overtime.
* Utah — 7.2 seconds left, Arizona leading 58-57. Lyons’ two free throws basically ensures nothing worse than overtime as the Cats hold on to win.
Lyons said that in the Colorado game, Kevin Parrom came up to him before his late free throws and said, “We already know you’re going to make these.”
“I can be as nervous as I want, but if my teammates have confidence in me, it’s always going to give me that extra boost to make plays,” Lyons said.
“I give all the credit to them for having confidence in me. They make plays throughout the whole game; I just try to finish them.”
Lyons is a good free throw shooter, especially this season. He’s at 88.3 percent (53 of 60) with Arizona, and he shot 76.1 percent last season. Lyons, who has improved his free throw shooting every year in college, entered the season with a career mark of 72.8 percent.
He didn’t have anything quite as dramatic at the line last season as this season, but he did make 4 of 4 attempts in the final 23 seconds in an eight-point win over Richmond. Lyons’ last miss in the final minute of a game came against Miami of Ohio in the fourth game of last season.
He will have commendable percentages at the line no matter how you slice up the situations, but his late-game shooting indicates an uncommon level of clutch.
Clicking on a lot of box scores reveals that since that game against Miami of Ohio on Nov. 18, 2011, he is 23 of 23 in the final minute of games, 30 of 31 (96.8 percent) in the final two minutes and 53 of 58 (91.4 percent) in the final five minutes.
Yes, Lyons is still adjusting to being a full-time point guard, barely keeping a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. He was a miserable 9 of 30 from the field in the opening week of Pac-12 play. But you know he is going to take most big shots down the stretch for Arizona, sometimes going all the way for the game-winner (as in the Florida game) or getting to the line.
Which is a perfectly fine place to be.
“One of the big reasons why we’re here undefeated,” Miller said, “is just his clutch play, especially from the line.”