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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    ‘Cats make believers with streak

    Cinderella, meet Cupid.

    Sure, it wasn’t love at first sight, but these Wildcats earned every last ounce of love – the hard way. They’ve trapped you back into the Big Dance, clawing their way into not only relevance, but a newfound, old-fashioned sense of excitement.

    Valentine’s Day goes down as the day that made everyone believers – believers that a team’s camaraderie and chemistry can overcome the most bizarre adversities.

    Valentine’s Day: the day Hollywood begins scripting its new against-all-odds sports flick – starring Russ Pennell, goatee and all.

    Valentine’s Day: the day Tucson fell in love with basketball again.

    Saturday morning in McKale Center, the Wildcats officially entered the building through the Zona Zoo, slappin’ high-fives and showing love to the students and fans who haven’t seen a win over UCLA since 2005.

    On his way down, a fired-up UA forward Fendi Onobun put his hand on a sign that read “”BELIEVE.””

    He believed; he always did.

    Now you do, too.

    The Wildcats captured the hearts of all 14,611 fans in attendance who made an overpacked McKale Center feel absolutely electric.

    Arizona (18-8, 8-5 Pacific 10 Conference) led by as many as 25 points against No. 11 UCLA, completing an improbable sweep over the Los Angeles schools this weekend.

    “”Coming here, beating UCLA was one of my top priorities,”” said UA wing Chase Budinger. “”It feels great. I just can’t say any more than that. That reputation of us being soft I don’t think is with us anymore.””

    This team essentially survived on life support just four weeks ago, and has risen above and beyond all expectations.

    That’s what seven straight wins will do. That’s what winning can do, period.

    UA interim head coach Russ Pennell candidly spoke Friday about the same program that was turned inside-out merely four months ago.

    “”When we started, how much was really expected? We were hoping we didn’t embarrass people,”” Pennell said. “”Even the fans, it was wait and see. And I don’t blame them.””

    He used the word “”embarrass””. At the beginning of the season, Pennell was worried about embarrassing the program, its tradition and reputation.

    Saturday’s game bled tradition. Ex-Wildcats and current NBA pros Jerryd Bayless and Jason Terry sat together court-side after giving the team a pep talk before the game.

    During the second half, the “”Ooh Ahh”” man signed Terry’s left-hand cast. That’s homecoming love.

    Soaking up the post-game environment, UA walk-on David Bagga jumped on the media table in front of the Zona Zoo, giving the fans some love.

    Officially, you’ve seen it all.

    “”We feed off our crowd,”” said UA point guard Nic Wise. “”The last couple games they packed the stands. It’s big for us.””

    Added UCLA forward Alfred Aboya: “”I don’t know what happened today – whether it was the crowd or the pressure – but we didn’t do what we normally do.””

    So here they are, your hottest team in the Pacific 10 Conference, if not the nation. The crowds have caught on, as will the attention while the streak continues.

    Then, there’s that other streak: the program’s coveted 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

    Number 25 never felt so close – with three weekends remaining, the Wildcats sit two wins away from a 20-win season.

    Five games left on the schedule, including two home contests – and there’s no hotter venue than McKale Center.

    As the post-game press conference began, Budinger turned to UA forward Jordan Hill, and said “”There’s a lot more media people here than about a month ago.””

    Added Pennell: “”People have just caught on. The fans have been absolutely phenomenal. I just think that our team has kind of played under the radar.””

    And that’s the way he likes it.

    It’s been easy to fly under the national radar as a mediocre team seeking an identity in a jumbled conference.

    It’s still a jumbled conference, but now Pennell has the team with the Pac-10’s longest league-winning streak of the season.

    That’s the stuff ESPN loves, not to mention the fact that this team might be America’s best story-line in college basketball this season.

    “”I hope everyone forgets about us and leaves us alone,”” Pennell joked at the end of the press conference.

    It’s hard to forget true love.

    – Bryan Roy is a journalism sophomore. He can be reached at
    sports@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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