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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Commentary: Arizona’s two-game sweep keeps posteason hopes alive

    Arizona forward Zane Johnson shuffles on defense against Washington State in the Wildcats 66-56 win Saturday in McKale Center. As one of the teams best 3-point shooters, Johnsons emerging role has given Arizona more depth off of the bench this season.
    Arizona forward Zane Johnson shuffles on defense against Washington State in the Wildcats’ 66-56 win Saturday in McKale Center. As one of the team’s best 3-point shooters, Johnson’s emerging role has given Arizona more depth off of the bench this season.

    They were once down, but not out – at least statistically.

    Twelve days ago, a heartbreaking loss against ASU all but nailed the coffin on Arizona’s season. The 53-47 defeat bottled the Wildcats down to a dreadful 2-5 league record and a ninth-place standing in the Pacific 10 Conference.

    At halftime of the Houston game on Jan. 24, the UA football team boasted its Las Vegas Bowl trophy and received a grateful standing ovation that sounded more like: “”Is it football season yet?””

    Thousands of fans poured through the exits, leaving the game early to ponder those same, rare thoughts.

    What a difference 12 days makes.

    After literally getting stomped on, suddenly the Wildcats managed to creep out of the Pac-10 basement and join the party upstairs – one crazy party, to say the least.

    Call it the resurrection from Aubrey Coleman’s right sneaker – the one that hit Arizona’s last nerve. Who knows where this made-for-Hollywood roller coaster will end. But the Wildcats knew some kid from Houston wasn’t going to single-handedly end their season.

    Arizona (14-8, 4-5 Pac-10) completed the sweep against the Washington schools this weekend, keeping its NCAA Tournament chances lit by a small kindle for the time being.

    Coleman couldn’t smother the fire. It still burns, ever so dimly.

    A three-game winning streak sent the Wildcats from ninth to sixth place, as they inched yet another game closer to the .500 mark.

    Now at the halfway point of the Pac-10 season, they must finish the season at a more modest-looking 6-3 to reach the 20-win plateau.

    “”This is the time of the season that teams will either keep on getting better or drop off,”” UA forward Chase Budinger said. “”The biggest thing I can say is we’ve been getting better each and every day. The luck kind of turned for us. We’ve started to win close games down the stretch.””

    UA interim head coach Russ Pennell said he doesn’t believe in do-or-die games, nor would he want that pressure applied to any one single game.

    But heading into the weekend 2-5, with very slim margin for error for any NCAA Tournament aspirations, Pennell admitted the team’s back was against the wall.

    A loss Saturday would’ve certainly dampened, if not voided, the Wildcats’ upset over No. 23 Washington on Thursday. Instead, the weekend ended without any significantly bad whistles or fouls. For the first time in the Pac-10 season, the Wildcats secured two quality wins – as if every win from now on out isn’t quality.

    Now with four home games, four away games and one ASU game on tap, Arizona can still keep the fire warm.

    “”Learning how to win comes with experience, comes with maturity, and I think our team is starting to mature,”” Budinger said. “”I think we’re starting to learn down the stretch how to win games. I think everyone’s confidence is up.””

    Added Pennell: “”You should be playing your best basketball the first of February. I think we can still get better, I think we can improve. I think our defense can keep improving.””

    Both wins this weekend showed how difficult winning on the road in the Pac-10 can be. Big runs produce a snowball effect with the fans as the team gains momentum. Take Arizona’s 24-2 run midway through the second half against Wazzu – the surge of energy that not only woke up the fans, but seemingly the Wildcats themselves, too.

    Arizona smacked a very similar, big run against the Huskies, fueled by 3-pointers and a raucous crowd. More than any other sport or level, college basketball arenas can certainly help determine the outcome of games, which begs the question: When will this same team figure out how to stop or endure big runs on the road? So far this season, the Wildcats are 0-6 in true road games and very much aware of that statistic.

    They couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to break the road woes than this weekend, against the Pac-10’s weakest collective road trip.

    The Oregon schools currently occupy the eigth and 10th places in the conference.

    “”Until we get it done, that’s a measuring mark that we still have to obtain,”” Pennell said.

    The positive outlook finally splits apart this season from last season.

    Comparisons between last season and this season were inevitable when looking at late-game collapses and straight-up drama.

    This year’s team is going in a different direction – a positive one for the time being.

    “”Last year was very opposite,”” Budinger said. “”We were losing close games and we were just not getting it done down the stretch.””

    Now, it’s the second-half stretch of the season that the Wildcats need to close.

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