A cold wind whipped through the Tucson streets Thursday night, but only after the fireworks at McKale Center lit up the Old Pueblo, fueled by another furious last-minute comeback by the latest iteration of the Cardiac Cats, a team that has refused to say die this season, en route to the program’s best start in 82 years.
Sean Miller’s club remained on fire, though it didn’t happen without a little good fortune (or a much-deserved make-up call, depending on who you ask).
Sean Miller oozes confidence whether he's barking out orders or calmly surveying the floor from a kneeled position.
When Colorado guard Sabatino Chen chucked up a desperation bomb as time expired – the game tied at 80 – the 14,545 in attendance gasped, having just regained their collective breath, following a wild final two minutes that saw the Cats storm back from a double-digit deficit to knot the score on a pair of Mark Lyons free throws with nine seconds remaining.
Chen’s shot banked home off the glass, but while the Buffaloes players stormed the floor to mob their new hero, Arizona’s Nick Johnson and many UA fans (yours truly included) flailed their arms wildly, in a plea to the officials to do the same and wave off the basket.
Referee James Breeding assembled his crew and initiated a several-minute review that saw scores of fans start for the exits, assuming the worst.
One supporter, sitting in the 13th row, recorded the final moments of regulation on his iPhone, and showed his own replay to those around him, declaring his belief that the shot was good. Shortly thereafter, the McKale video boards aired footage captured by in-house cameras, and the biased red and blue crowd moaned its overwhelming objection to counting the basket.
Text messages poured in from friends watching on TV in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Phoenix, and also several in Tucson who believed the replay showed that Chen had released the ball just in the nick of time. As word of this news spread, a few more broken-hearted fans begrudgingly began to trudge toward McKale’s tunnels.
Most stopped at the exits to take one final, fraught glance in the direction of midcourt, hopeful that by some stroke of grace, the refs would decide that five more minutes should be played to determine a clear victor.
Then, to their indescribable delight, they rushed back to their seats after Breeden and Pac-12 veteran colleague Verne Harris signaled “no good.”
Yet it was oh-so-good for Arizona, another thrilling twist of fate in what is becoming an unforgettable season, one that hasn’t even reached halfway point.
Perhaps the most wild and controversial finish in recent Arizona history truly was fate, illustrated by the very date the game was played – 1/3/13. The referees waved off Chen’s shot in spite of what many deemed solid proof he released the ball with one-tenth of a second left on the clock. The heave, naturally, was from three-point range, and in the end, the reversal sent the game into overtime, after which Arizona earned its 13th win of the season, 92-83.
The fate argument may seem a little far-fetched, but so too is trying to fathom where the magic that has lingered the past month derived, a month that has seen the Cats’ most prominent programs appear dead-to-rights, only to emerge victorious each and every time.
Arizona’s hard court win over fifth-ranked Florida on Dec. 15 capped what was likely the most miraculous day that any living UA follower has or will ever witness: Rich Rodriguez’s football squad recovered an onside kick and scored touchdowns twice in the final minute to escape by a single point over Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl; not to be outdone, that evening, the Basket Cats rallied for seven points in the final 56 seconds to steal a chaotic 65-64 triumph over the Gators on a Lyons layup with seven seconds to play.
The hoopsters found a way yet again on Christmas night – shaking off a putrid start to the second half that saw them fall behind by eight points, after leading by seven in the first – to regain the lead on (what else?) two Lyons free throws with 13 seconds remaining. Johnson then recovered from a well-executed screen play, sprinting to the hoop and leaping from out-of-nowhere in time to deny No. 18 San Diego State guard Chase Tapley’s layup attempt as the clock spun to zeroes.
It was the third fortuitous finish for the UA in 11 days, and following Thursday’s epic ending, such occurrences may soon start to feel like the norm in Tucson.
Wildcats near and far have no doubt embraced the sudden series of surprising turnarounds, which, specifically with regard to Miller’s team, permeate one’s consciousness with a sense that good fortune surrounds the club, no matter the circumstance, and that the team is one of destiny.
Whether or not that proves true remains to be seen, but in the tangible world, the Wildcats are undefeated and have already beaten a trio of NCAA Tournament-worthy opponents, albeit by the narrowest of margins. Nevertheless, those wins will surely help the UA earn a high seed in the Big Dance, in turn giving the Cats greater control over their own destiny.
Although Miller and his squad have suffered through long periods of ineffectiveness in multiple games this season, during which there appears to be no ‘go-to’ play or player, to their credit, they’ve yet to hang their heads in moments of uncertainty, and that unrelenting attitude will undoubtedly pay dividends in the coming weeks and months, when more games seem lost, when defeat feels imminent.
Fortunately, for the cardiopulmonary health of Arizona’s faithful, as the young front line of Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett continues to improve and take some of the scoring burden off Johnson and seniors Lyons, Solomon Hill, and Kevin Parrom, those helpless sentiments should be fewer and farther between.
And when the unthinkable does happen again, astonished Arizona fans will continue to pinch themselves, only to discover it’s all really happening. The challenge then for all Wildcats will be to appreciate the magic moments for all that they are, because as they well know, the pendulum of prosperity can swing the wrong way all too fast.
For now, however, reality continues to amaze.
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