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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Wildcats use full-throttle energy to escape first two rounds

    Wildcats use full-throttle energy to escape first two rounds

    MIAMI – They left it all on the floor.

    Every last drop of energy, drip of sweat and dab of effort – the Wildcats left it all on the floor in Miami.

    No regrets. No what-ifs, should-haves or second-guesses: Those are the most painful conversations any competitive athlete must endure after losing.

    And over the past two years, you’ve seen plenty of instances in which Arizona played soft or uninspired when it mattered most. You’ve seen lost potential, underachievers and heartbreakers in a gradual decline of the once-elite program.

    Not this postseason. Not in Miami.

    The Arizona Wildcats are in the Sweet 16.

    Can you believe it?

    “”We left it all on the court tonight, and I think it showed on the scoreboard,”” UA guard Kyle Fogg said softly, as if it was all that easy.

    For one more week, forget rumors about the next head coach or Jordan Hill’s NBA Draft stock.

    Instead let Duncan Budinger dish out high fives in the Arizona fan section – one for every point his son, Chase, scores.

    Let UA interim head coach Russ Pennell soak up the CBS airtime with post-game interviews. And as he walks across the court heading into the locker room, let him wave to the loyal UA fans and point at his jubilant wife and daughter standing in the Arizona section.

    Let UA walk-on David Bagga chest-bump Wilbur on the floor of an NBA arena.

    Because after 2,200 miles of traveling, 80 minutes of basketball and four months of brotherhood, that’s how the scene went down in Miami on Sunday as the clock read 00.0.

    The same team that lost its Hall-of-Fame head coach and barely snuck into the Tournament is the team in the Sweet 16.

    “”I’m speechless,”” said UA wing Zane Johnson. “”This team has come so far. So many ups and downs: it’s just a great feeling right now.

    “”We definitely deserve to be in (the Tournament),”” Johnson added. “”All the critics – they can just look at that now and soak it in.””

    Soak it in. Let it soak in.

    “”Man, Sweet 16, how sweet it is,”” said UA forward Fendi Onobun. “”It’s going to be a nice plane trip home. (Monday) morning, just let it soak in, celebrate, then get back to the practice court.””

    When asked Saturday in the locker room about the thought of Arizona sitting 40 minutes away from the Sweet 16, UA forward Jamelle Horne nodded his head and instantly said, “”It’s been a long season.””

    It certainly has, and it’s been an even longer span of time since Arizona basketball resurfaced on the national stage for good reasons.

    Not the reasons like collapsing to Illinois in the 2005 Elite Eight; or Lute Olson’s undisclosed leave, return, then retirement; or recruits leaving; or players transferring; or NCAA infractions; or losses to UAB.

    None of that. Believe it or not, a “”Da-vid Bag-ga”” chant echoed through the American Airlines Arena as the final seconds ran off the clock.

    The clock counted down to the Sweet 16.

    “”Everyone counted us out, I think, especially towards the beginning when we were 11-8 and even after our seven-game run,”” Fogg said. “”I think we’re playing our best basketball of the season right now, and it’s a good time to peak.””

    Arizona’s aggressiveness on defense paid off yet again, making Cleveland State look like it was dribbling in circles in the first half. As two Arizona defenders suffocated the ball with pressure, the Vikings’ Cinderella story gasped and heaved for air.

    The Wildcats took a commanding double-digit lead into halftime despite foul troubles to the Big Three. But without Nic Wise, the steering wheel, or Jordan Hill, the gas pedal – how would Russ Pennell’s run-down machine with 250,000 miles keep chuggin’ to Indianapolis?

    The breakdown lane – and bad, bad Tournament memories – looked inevitable.

    When Cleveland State cut its deficit to four points with 10 minutes left, and then again with 6:17 remaining, the arena erupted.

    The leftover Syracuse fans cheered for the Vikings. And it goes without saying that the leftover Arizona State University fans did, too.

    Maybe fans at American Airlines Arena wanted a true Cinderella story – meaning, a school that hasn’t been to the Big Dance every season for the past 25 years.

    While a No. 12-seed in the NCAA Tournament might seem like an unlikely series of upsets, the NBA-talented Wildcats certainly proved at isolated points this season that they could compete with anybody.

    Maybe they’re not a Cinderella on paper. Maybe the No. 12 seed just shows Arizona’s regular season’s inconsistencies and time it took for important role players like Kyle Fogg and Jamelle Horne to eventually develop.

    Boy, did they develop, and just in time, too.

    With 3:13 remaining and a pesky Vikings squad still lingering by a handful, Fogg intercepted a pass, drove down the court and dished it to Horne, who slammed home a nine point lead and ticket to Indy.

    In that instant, Fogg showed his developed awareness on defense, improved ball-handling skills and better control in an extremely fast-tempo game.

    That’s just one instance of one player and how far he’s come. There are 11 guys on the roster who can share the experience, too.

    “”We said it all year long. We say it to each other every single night: We’re family. We stay together,”” Bagga said. “”We definitely knew we were capable, we just had to stay there, work hard with each other and believe in each other.””

    They believed through the 11-8 start, Selection Sunday and beyond.

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

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