Southern Californian ‘Cats head home

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Arizona men’s basketball forward Stanley Johnson (5) shoots a 3-pointer during Arizona’s 93-72 victory over Texas Southern during the Round of 64 in the 2015 NCAA Tournament in Moda Center in Portland, Ore., on March 19. Johnson is one of several Wildcats from Southern California returning home this weekend.

James Kelley

This time, armed with six players from Southern California, Arizona men’s basketball is hoping the third time’s the charm. For the third season in a row, the Wildcats will play in the Sweet Sixteen in Southern California, this year at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

The NCAA Tournament games in Southern California come in a season when the Wildcats didn’t play UCLA or USC in Los Angeles.

Forward Stanley Johnson (Fullerton, Calif.) is one of the Wildcats returning home. He said it will be very exciting to play in LA in college.

The freshman prepped at Mater Dei High School, which he led to a 135-5 record and four CIF Division I state championships; among players, he was the first to win four upper-division state titles in California history. He won the John R. Wooden Award winner for California Division I High School Player of the Year as a junior and senior, and, last season, he won the MaxPreps National Player of the Year.

“It’s always exciting to play at home,” Johnson said. “I think I play my best at home, so hopefully the home crowd gets me going, gets our team going.”

Fellow Southern California freshman point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright (Los Angeles) said the focus is on getting wins.

“It will be nice to go home and see all my friends and family,” he said, “but the focus is to keep advancing and to keep winning, to keep playing well.”

In 2014, the Wildcats played in Anaheim, Calif., beating No. 4-seed San Diego State 70-64 but losing to second-seeded Wisconsin 64-63 in overtime. In 2013 in LA, the UA lost 73-70 to No. 2-seed Ohio State.

This is Arizona’s fourth-straight trip to a Sweet Sixteen in Southern California in the NCAA Tournament. Though they missed the Big Dance in 2012, the Wildcats did beat No. 1-seed Duke 93-77 in 2011 and lost 65-63 to No. 3-seed — and eventual national champion — Connecticut.

Sixth man and shooting guard Gabe York (West Covina, Calif.) said he is excited for the chance to play in LA.

“It feels great; we didn’t get to play in LA against USC and UCLA, [but] I don’t want to make it too big or too little than what it is,” York said. “[I’m] definitely excited to go back home and see a lot of my family and see some of my friends from high school.”

Walk-on forward Drew Mellon (Santa Ana, Calif.) and guards Trey Mason and Jacob Hazzard (both from LA) are the other three SoCal Cats.

Arizona is 5-2 in Los Angeles in the NCAA Tournament and 12-8 in Southern California. The UA is 4-4 in Anaheim, 1-2 in Long Beach and 2-0 in San Diego.

Before that, the Wildcats’ last NCAA Tournament games in Los Angeles were in 1994, when they beat third-seeded Louisville 82-70 in the Sweet Sixteen and No. 1 seed Missouri 92-72 in the Elite Eight. Current Arizona assistant coach Damon Stoudamire scored 27 points against Mizzou.

In 1988, the Wildcats beat No. 16 Cornell 90-50 and eighth-seeded Seton Hall 84-55 in Los Angeles. In 1976, Arizona beat UNLV 114-109 in overtime in the Regional Semifinals but lost 82-66 to UCLA in the Regional Final in LA.

Johnson went to Arizona’s 2013 loss to Ohio State.

“It was one of those games where we felt like we gave it our all,” Johnson said.

Jackson-Cartwright said he grew up going to Pac-10/12 Tournament games in the Staples Center, where the Wildcats will play this week.

Staples Center is the current home to the Los Angeles Lakers (NBA), Clippers (NBA), Sparks (WNBA) and Kings (NHL).

“It’s probably the biggest thing that you could talk about in LA,” York said. “Obviously, the Lakers and Clippers play there. I’m a Lakers fan, ever since I was born. So for me personally, I think it’s a very big venue, and I’m very excited to play there.”

When the Pac-10/12 Tournament was in the Staples Center from 2002 to 2012, the Wildcats went 12-10. They won the championship in 2002 and reached the title game four times.

The Wildcats hope for a friendlier reception this year.

“You know it’s going to be crazy,” Johnson said, “because our Wildcat Nation and fan base will be live and direct in there, so it will be fun.”

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