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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Wildcats show fight in huge comeback

    When the Arizona men’s basketball team trailed 32-12 with 6:47 left in the first half yesterday against a Texas A&M squad playing like the No. 9 team in the country that it is, it felt like the North Carolina Game Part II in McKale Center.

    Instead of folding, however, the Wildcats followed up with about 25 minutes of basketball interim head coach Kevin O’Neill said probably his team’s full potential.

    The Wildcats outscored the Aggies by 31 points in that span off the strength of a 50-27 second half. Arizona held A&M 34.5 percent shooting after allowing the team to shoot 60 percent in the first half.

    In turn, the Wildcats connected on 59.1 percent of its second-half shots against a defense that gives up 37.3 percent shooting and 58.7 points per game.

    “”I can’t state enough how big a win it is. It’s a huge win for our guys,”” O’Neill said. “”That would be a huge win for anybody.””

    The Wildcats came back for a number of reasons. Freshman guard Jerryd Bayless treated the Aggies’ defensive juggernaut as if it were a defense he saw back in high school.

    When Arizona trailed by 20, O’Neill told Bayless to be aggressive, and the fiery guard did just that. He scored nine of the Wildcats’ next 11 points with an assist in between to cut the deficit to a more manageable 12 points and will his squad back into the game.

    O’Neill told the team it would have a chance if it cut the lead to 10 by halftime and then to six in the opening minutes of the second half. Arizona nearly accomplished that before going on to complete the comeback.

    “”I don’t think there’s a lot of quit in this team,”” O’Neill said. “”They were down 11 to Virginia and came back, in Kansas they got down (11) and came back. I think they’re going to be a group that will fight, and that’s what we needed to do, to fight.””

    Last year’s squad showed no such fight against the Tar Heels, when a close game through 15 minutes quickly spiraled out of control. By halftime the Wildcats trailed by 18 before mounting little resistance in the second half, when North Carolina turned the game into an embarrassment.

    Forward Chase Budinger and guard Nic Wise both said the difference involved Arizona’s defense, which forced enough stops to allow for the comeback.

    “”This year if we go down like that we’re able to come back because we can really get into people defensively and get stops and execute on offense,”” Budinger said. “”So that’s what we did, and last year we would never be able to do that.””

    Said Wise: “”This year it’s all about defense. Last year we didn’t have that mentality. There’s no way we could have come back unless the other team was just missing shots.””

    Senior guard Jawann McClellan added that much-improved team chemistry makes up another difference.

    “”Everybody stayed tight together. Nobody got down on one another or started arguing with one another, and that was the key to the game,”” he said.

    O’Neill noticed that “”positive emotion”” through the last 30 minutes of the game, even when the Wildcats trailed by 20. Everybody pulled for each other, with the bench cheering on each play, culminating with the whole team bounding out to midcourt to greet the five on the floor after a Budinger 3 put Arizona up 51-47.

    That spirit helped the Wildcats win a game they needed, because as McClellan said, the NCAA Tournament committee isn’t going to care that Arizona played No. 4 Kansas and Virginia tough.

    The Wildcats recovered from early double-digit deficits against the Cavaliers and Jayhawks, but shoddy execution down the stretch doomed their chances at a win.

    The Aggies took back the lead with 6:29 left, but from there Arizona outscored A&M by 12.

    “”We knew that this was going to come,”” Budinger said. “”We’ve been having close games against every big team we’ve been playing, but we haven’t really put it together at the end of the game, and we finally showed that this game. We finally got some stops, key stops at the end, and we actually executed on offense and knocked free throws down.””

    Finally earning that marquee nonconference win means the Wildcats may regain their spot in the national rankings this week.

    More importantly, it shows the development of a resilient young squad tough enough to battle back from big deficits with a defense that’s improving by the game.

    “”I think it shows the country what we really can be,”” Bayless said.

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