The Arizona Wildcats don’t know how many players they ushered out of McKale Center on Sunday, but they do know this:
They did it in style. Their style.
No. 3 Arizona claimed its second outright Pac-12 regular-season title of the Sean Miller era with a 79-66 win over Stanford on Sunday, using stifling defense to force turnovers and fuel an explosive transition game in the same manner that propelled the Wildcats to a school-record 21-0 start.
Stanford had eight turnovers and shot just 36 percent in the first half as Arizona took a 41-28 lead at halftime and led by up to 25 in a largely uncompetitive second half. All that led to T.J. McConnell holding the ball with a wide grin in the final seconds, then the entire team taking a victory lap through the McKale Center student section.
While Miller gave guard Jordin Mayes a start in both halves for Senior Day, much to the delight of the 14,545 fans on hand, Aaron Gordon decorated what was likely his homecourt farewell with 19 points and a career-high 15 rebounds.
Then there was junior guard Nick Johnson, the team’s heart and soul this season, hitting a pair of three-pointers, dishing four points and, like Gordon, hearing fans chant “one more year” as he snipped the nets afterward. Both are projected to be taken in the June NBA draft, Gordon as a lottery pick.
There’s always a possibility other Wildcats, such as projected 2015 draft picks Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski may have made their last appearance, too.
That’s why Miller has a backup plan.
“We’re going to sign about 19 guys,” he said, drawing laughs, then noted with all seriousness: “It’s not what it used to be. I played against (former UA star) Sean Elliott in his senior year and you guys watched him grow and he’s so spectacular.
“Sean Elliott isn’t going to get to become a senior anymore, so obviously there’s more turnover. And if as a coach you say, ‘Who’s coming back who’s not, who could make a good decision, who potentially could make a decision that’s a horrible one,’ you’d go stir crazy.
“The agreement we have now as a group is to focus on the task at hand.”
The Wildcats did exactly that Sunday by winning the Pac-12, and with two games still to play in the regular season. Arizona is 27-2 overall and 14-2 in the Pac-12, with games at Oregon State and at Oregon still remaining.
Arizona also went undefeated at home — 18-0 — for the first time since 2010-11, when the Wildcats won the Pac-12 and reached the NCAA Elite Eight.
“That was one of our three goals,” Johnson said, referring to the regular-season title. “We want to win the Pac-12 regulation season, win the Pac-12 tournament and the national championship. … Coach said we want to go down in Arizona history, so we just try to stay with it.”
For that reason, neither Johnson nor Gordon took much of a bite on questions after the game related to their potential departures. When Gordon was asked of his thoughts as fans cheered for “one more year,” he said:
“That’s looking too far into the future,” Gordon said. “We’re focused on right now. We’re focused on the present and winning as many games as we possibly can.”
If the game was Gordon’s last at McKale, though, it was an effort to remember. He was dominant all over the court, making 8 of 13 field goals, collecting 15 boards, dishing two assists, with one block and one steal while he also helped limit explosive Stanford big man Dwight Powell to just 3-of-13 shooting.
Not only did he look like, well, an NBA lottery pick, but Gordon also put together the kind of performance that can take the Cats even further along their path of healing without forward Brandon Ashley.
“There was a time a month ago, as good as he is and as talented as he is, he wasn’t as good on the glass and as dominant as he was today,” Miller said. “He’s starting to really hit his stride right now and it’s great to see him do that.”
Of course, it wasn’t just about Gordon. The Wildcats had five players in double figures, with a wide array of contributions from Gabe York’s 3 of 5 three-pointers to Hollis-Jefferson’s three blocks to — even though he went scoreless — Mayes’ effort in the opening minutes of both halves.
“He’s a fantastic kid, and did a really good job,” Miller said of Mayes. “In those two segments (to open both halves) we outscored Stanford. He’s always been an excellent defensive player. It was good for him to get so much recognition from the fans.”
Indeed, as much as fans clamored for Johnson and Gordon to return, it was Mayes who generated as much cheer as anyone, before the game, during the game, when he was taken out, and when he climbed up the ladder to snip the nets.
Mayes, who was not selected for postgame interviews, is the only member of the Wildcats to have done that twice, being a part of UA’s last conference title team in 2010-11, the last season of the Pac-10.
“He won two (California) state championships before he got here and now a Pac-10 and a Pac-12 championship,” Miller said. “He’s a winner. You can sense the respect his teammates have for him.”
Even while playing the most limited role of his four-year career with the Wildcats, Mayes has been one of 10 contributing players whom, Miller says, have maintained a tightly focused bond on the now, and the team.
Miller said he likes how unselfish the Wildcats are but that they could always be susceptible to a disruptive outside influence.
“I never take for granted the next day when the sun rises that somebody outside of our locker room didn’t poison a player or two players on our team, so that the only thing they care about is themselves,” Miller said. “The second that it happens we’re very average. It is a fight every single day.”
The Wildcats have won that fight every day so far this season, including Sunday. They have another month to go, a month in which all their goals this season can be accomplished.
Do that, Miller suggested, and the other goals will come easier later.
“Part of what’s going to get these guys what they want individually is to be a spectacular team,” Miller said. “Today’s Pac-12 championship is part of that path. They’ve played on a team that’s excellent.
“In the spring, when it all comes to an end, I will do my best to point them in the right direction from the information that I have and their families and themselves will do the same.”