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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “Depth still limited, but Wildcats optimistic after win”

    BERKELEY, Calif. – By coming up with a clutch, nearly must-win road victory Saturday at California, the Arizona men’s basketball team quieted – for the time being – shouts of how far the program has fallen.

    A loss to California would have dropped the Wildcats to an unthinkable 1-4 Pacific 10 Conference record, with the very real possibility of being 2-7 midway through league play.

    With the win, optimists can take the glass half full approach that if Arizona starts closing out games, it has a decent chance of winning two or three of its next four to get back into the thick of a wild Pac-10 race.

    “”I think this gets us back on track,”” said UA guard Jerryd Bayless. “”We’ve been off track for a little while. I think a couple injuries to me and (forward) Bret (Brielmaier) has just thrown the team off a little bit. If we’re going to start finding our groove again, I think this is a good stepping stone for us to start that.””

    Following Thursday’s loss to Stanford, O’Neill frequently lamented his squad’s missed opportunities to close out the Cardinal and before that ASU on the road, a pair of games that hinged on a few shots that make a huge difference in the current standings.

    The Wildcats turned the tables on a struggling Cal squad, whose head coach Ben Braun said his team is learning the hard way that you can play well but lose in this conference, erasing a seven-point deficit in the final seven minutes before hanging on with clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch.

    O’Neill wants his team to become more consistent closing squads out, like it did against Illinois and then-No. 9 Texas A&M earlier in the year but failed to do against Virginia, ASU and Stanford.

    “”We’re right there, but we’ve just got to do a better job of closing out games, and we were able to do that,”” said guard Jawann McClellan. “”We made shots when we had to, we got stops when we needed to.””

    McClellan said he felt the Wildcats played like a team in desperation, with the squad sticking together even when falling behind by a deficit that must have felt like it was accompanied by the weight of a season about to go down the toilet.

    If the Wildcats had collapsed down the stretch once again, McClellan would have been talking about what it felt like to be in ninth place in the Pac-10, above only an Oregon State squad a few notches below the rest of the conference. Instead he spoke of how close Arizona is from leading the league.

    “”We’re pretty much like two possessions from being in first place,”” he said, “”so we learned how to finish the game today and we sort of grew up before our own eyes.””

    In what has become an every-game occurrence, O’Neill once again overextended his starters.

    Bayless and forward Jordan Hill played 38 minutes, McClellan went for 37 and Budinger played 34 but missed some time with foul trouble. The bench played just 36 minutes, including 19 from typical starter Nic Wise, a guard who played less than usual because of matchups and a head injury that kept him out for about 10 minutes in the second half.

    O’Neill said Budinger does not shoot with quite the legs when he gets a bit tired, as he hit six of eight shots in the first half but missed six in a row before nailing his final attempt in the second.

    “”He had wide open shots in the second half,”” O’Neill said. “”It’s on him to make them, and he will make them.””

    Bayless suffered a similar fate, going 4-for-6 in the first but 2-for-7 in the second, with both players missing a number of jumpers.

    “”Let’s face it,”” O’Neill said, “”I’m playing those guys too many minutes, that’s why they get a little bit tired in the second half. What am I going to do?

    “”I have no choice but not to. But you know what, we’ve just got to keep going and try to win as many as we can.””

    That candid remark reflects O’Neill’s actions in sparingly using his bench, often matching up players he thinks would fit best in particular situations. Budinger, Bayless, Hill and McClellan often only take short rests or come out for foul trouble, and depending on the matchups, Wise has been in that boat a number of times as well.

    O’Neill knows he’s playing with a limited deck and feels he’s got no choice but to ride his starters and as he essentially said hope for the best.

    “”That’s who we are,”” O’Neill said.

    That’s not how it’s been with the UA basketball program for the past 20 years, an issue compounded by 2007-08 possibly being the strongest the Pac-10’s been from top to bottom during Arizona’s run of dominance.

    The Wildcats have some catching up to do in conference play, but with Bayless, Budinger and Hill, there’s still star power at the top that makes Arizona a threat to do just that, especially after closing out a difficult road win.

    “”It’s a tough league,”” Budinger said. “”If people are going to go back down, hopefully we had our down period already, hopefully we can pick it up from here on out and just start winning games.””

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