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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Quiet halftime boost key for success in 2nd half

    UA guard Nic Wise, left, and forward Chase Budinger talk with interim head coach Russ Pennell during a break in a win over NAU. 

    UA guard Nic Wise, left, and forward Chase Budinger talk with interim head coach Russ Pennell during a break in a win over NAU. 

    Analysis

    Russ Pennell isn’t Kevin O’Neill.

    When it comes to motivating the players, the coaches are magnetic opposites. For one, the former has more pronounced help coming from his team leaders.

    The current UA men’s basketball players talk amongst each other in practice, during games and in the locker during halftime before the coaches come in, highlighting a phrase Russ Pennell’s father, Dewy, often uttered: When players coach themselves, that’s when you know you have a good team.

    Sometimes at halftime, junior forward Chase Budinger will stand up in front of his teammates to give a brief, but hot speech. Sometimes it’s more low key. When the Wildcats were tied at 31 with NAU at halftime on Sunday afternoon, Budinger sat in front of his locker and spoke to his teammates calmly.

    “”I had some things to say, Nic (Wise) had some things to say, and then the coach (Pennell) came in and he had some things to say,”” Budinger said. “”Me and Nic really took that leadership and really tried pumping our guys up at halftime.””

    But pumping up didn’t mean anyone had to raise his voice – players and Pennell alike.

    “”There’s no way we should be tied with NAU at halftime,”” Wise said, shining light on the fact that the Wildcats had beaten the Lumberjacks 24 consecutive times going into Sunday’s game, and had won by 20 or more points in three of the previous five contests.

    Budinger is more of a vocal leader this season, mainly because there were older players to do the job last season, “”and also coach O’Neill ran things his way,”” Budinger added.

    Then Pennell came in. He could have done what O’Neill often did and yell and swear at his players.

    He could have done what O’Neill did at halftime on Feb. 2, when Arizona was down by 20 to UCLA and kicked a free-standing grease board, breaking it into four pieces.

    But Pennell isn’t O’Neill.

    “”He doesn’t really come into the locker room screaming,”” Wise said of Pennell. “”But he does call players out. It seems like every time he comes in (at) halftime, he calls out me and Chase, or Jordan (Hill), or Mellow (Jamelle Horne) – he calls the leaders out.””

    O’Neill came to Arizona with an NBA background. Pennell came right from the AAU circuit. Maybe being around younger players so often is the reason Pennell doesn’t swear either.

    “”It wasn’t loud,”” Pennell said of Sunday’s halftime locker room speech. “”There was no screaming and hollering. It was just simply, we were underachieving with our effort. And I think they knew it.””

    No, Pennell isn’t O’Neill.

    But just five games into this season, and there are already similarities with their respective Arizona teams.

    Take the victories that didn’t seem possible in the first half, for example.

    Last season, the Wildcats won at Nevada-Las Vegas after taking their first lead with 1:18 left in the game. At the beginning of the season they upset No. 9 Texas A&M despite being down 20 points in the first half. Six days later, Arizona sputtered against Illinois and got a late boost to win by 6 in overtime in Chicago’s United Center.

    Jawann McClellan said it best after the UNLV game.

    He sat in the visiting locker room of Thomas & Mack Center with his head down and spoke quietly: “”I don’t want to be the comeback kids anymore.””

    Slow starts became the unofficial theme of last season. Nothing has changed this year.

    The Wildcats trailed Division II Incarnate Word early in the second half of an exhibition game to kick off this season.

    It took them 17:16 to capture the lead for good against Florida Atlantic.

    They had a large surge in the final minute against Alabama-Birmingham, but their chance at overtime was spoiled with two late fouls.

    It looked as if Santa Clara would beat Arizona last week until the Wildcats took the lead with 2:09 left, then won by 3.

    Then NAU came to town and led by a point 1:38 into the second half before the Wildcats took off.

    “”It worries me,”” Pennell said of the team’s sluggish starts. “”It bothers me, because I know when we get up against some opponents, we might be buried by the time we try to come back.””

    Wise said the team’s second-half surges are the result of the Wildcats’ 2-2-1 defense, which may not work effectively as it does early on, as opponents grow tired in the second half.

    Pennell pointed more to the players’ increased effort in the final 20 minutes, something he may have to harp on them about the entire season.

    But it’s how he’ll do it, and how the Wildcats respond, that will definitely set this season’s interim head coach apart from last season’s.

    “”There’s a fine line between chewing their tails out and encouraging them, and sometimes I feel like I’m doing both,”” Pennell said. “”I’m patting them on the back and I’m kicking them in the butt. That’s just the dynamics of this team, and I think we’re going to be going through that all year long.””

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