The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

86° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Bittersweet 16

    Bittersweet 16

    INDIANAPOLIS-The locker room was different this time.

    It wasn’t the gloomy, library-quiet locker room the Arizona men’s basketball team found itself in after losing to ASU by 12 points in Los Angeles two and a half weeks ago. This time, in the Lucas Oil Stadium locker room, Jordan Hill was able to smile instead of lying sprawled across four folding chairs like he did in Staples Center.

    Players were able to sing and holler in the showers on Friday night, instead of letting the water bead off their backs in silence.

    You would have never guessed the No. 12 seed Wildcats had just ended their season with a brutal 103-64 loss to No. 1 Louisville in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, marking the Cardinals’ largest point total and the worst loss in a regional semifinal altogether in NCAA Tournament history.

    You would have never guessed that a final family reunion of sorts was taking place.

    “”That last game doesn’t define our camaraderie,”” said senior Fendi Onobun. “”It doesn’t define what we went through. It doesn’t define how hard we worked since day one, since Oct. 26, 2008.””

    Sure, advancing to the Elite Eight would have been nice. But surpassing the 20-win mark – finishing 21-14 – and going farther than any other Wildcat squad since the 2004-05 season was far greater than what most people expected.

    “”If you asked everybody if this is going to be where we end up, we’d take it in a New York minute,”” said UA associate head coach Mike Dunlap, who turned down the job of interim head coach after Hall-of-Fame head coach Lute Olson retired.

    Still, with all the season’s distractions, the team’s nucleus seemed to be indestructible Friday night.

    “”This is the best team ever, man,”” said junior forward Jordan Hill, who registered 14 points and 11 rebounds. “”This is the best team since I’ve been here. We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, people doubting us, people not thinking we should have been in the tournament.

    “”Before that seven-game winning streak, everyone thought we were done; now we made it to the Sweet 16 and played against the No. 1 team,”” Hill added. “”It’s a real good feeling, a real blessing. We felt that we did a good job this season.””

    As junior point guard Nic Wise pointed out, the Wildcats were in far-better shape than any other team in the Pacific 10 Conference -ÿwhich certainly helped alleviate the pain from Arizona’s first-round loss to ASU in the Pac-10 Tournament.

    “”A loss like that does not define our season,”” said Wise, who was one of three Wildcats to score in double digits, with 14 points. “”We were the only Pac-10 team in the Sweet 16. … This game doesn’t mean anything.””

    Senior David Bagga’s 3-pointer with about 45 seconds left in the game didn’t matter, either. Neither did Chase Budinger’s game-high 22 points, or the fact that 13 different Cardinals scored.

    What did matter was that this Arizona Wildcat family was together in the locker room one last time.

    “”When we first started this year, I thought we were fragmented,”” interim head coach Russ Pennell said. “”I thought we had guys that did their own thing. They weren’t bad people, but no one had ever taken the time to show them that, ‘You could be a family, you could be unselfish and you could care for one another and a lot could get accomplished.'””

    The Wildcats did get a lot accomplished, but by halftime, it was all but written in stone: Louisville led 49-28.

    The Wildcats didn’t roam Circle Centre Mall like Louisville and Michigan State players did Saturday afternoon, taking pictures with fans and signing autographs. Instead, they boarded their chartered flight and went back to Tucson, uncertain about the future.

    “”We all got along as a family,”” Hill said. “”Not knowing if we’ll have our brothers beside us, it is going to be hard. (But) it’s a part of growing up.””

    All they knew was the past.

    Pennell’s past was written on a whiteboard in the locker room: Under “”Ole Miss”” read “”8-22,”” highlighting the Rebels’ record in Pennell’s first season with the team. Until this season, that was his favorite year ever because of what it took to get those eight wins.

    “”Now it’s No. 2,”” Pennell said.

    Onobun addressed his team before Arizona’s game with Louisville. He looked at the younger players on the team and told them to embrace the moment as much as possible. What they had in their immediate future was a reward; what they have in their long-term future isn’t as certain.

    “”This is a special feeling,”” Onobun said. “”Yes, our institution, our program, has been here 25 years in a row, but 26 might be the hardest one ever.””

    More to Discover
    Activate Search