From the File of Things You Never Thought You'd Hear Sean Miller Say This Year:
"This could be our best win of the season."
That fooled about 14,543 of the 14,545 over-caffeinated fans Wednesday night, those who came to celebrate the 40th anniversary of McKale Center with little respect for and less fear of the Pac-12's fifth-place team.
But suddenly it was 10-0, Cardinal, and all of those painful memories from a 21-5 deficit to UCLA, a 16-5 start at Washington and a 30-13 disadvantage against Colorado were manifest.
Arizona's obligatory early-game struggles are one thing, but it only took about three minutes to see that Stanford ain't half bad.
"It's hard for me to believe Stanford is 5-5 in our conference," said Miller after UA's 73-66 win. "I don't say that to discredit them, I mean it in the most complimentary way I can. If they're in the middle of the pack, our conference speaks for itself."
After 10 games, eight of them victories, Arizona has found that it never gets an opponent's B effort. The guys and gals at ESPN and the number crunchers at Bracketology Central don't give the Pac-12 a whiff of attention, but if you are Arizona, with a target the size of A Mountain on your back, the Pac-12 has become tough and nasty, something just shy of a pit bull.
Arizona shot 60 percent in the second half Wednesday, which usually works. Solomon Hill again was at his best in what Miller calls "moments of truth," and Mark Lyons was a revelation, eschewing quick and misguided three-pointers, turning into a facilitator in Game 22.
Hey, if Kobe Bryant can do it in mid-season, why not Mark "Moog" Lyons, too?
Hill and Lyons are the best 1-2 senior punch in the league, by far, the one clear edge Arizona has on the field in a mostly younger league. Seniors are gold in college basketball, their value untold, and as long as Lyons and Hill play the way they did Wednesday, the Wildcats are unlikely to buckle.
"Solomon and I kinda took over the game down the stretch, that's what seniors do," said Lyons.
Kinda took over?
From the 15:50 point of the second half, trailing 35-32, Lyons and Hill scored 29 of Arizona's next 38 points. The Wildcats led 70-64.
Only then did Miller, who had over-heated, put his suit jacket back on. Only then did the similarly worried 14,545 fans get a sense of relief.
It was a long night, labor, the type a younger and less confident club would've lost, no matter how loud it got in the arena.
"When the game's on the line, that's when great players are made," said Lyons, who probably had his best overall game as a Wildcat. "Me and Solomon made great plays at the end of the game. You're really not a good player if you don't like it at crunch time."
Hill's explanation: "You just gotta be ready for your moment."
This doesn't happen accidentally. Miller forced a rare laugh in the post-game media session when he said he has met with Lyons "107 times," a reference to their heart-to-heart chats about what makes a good point guard.
It has been a sometimes slow transition for Lyons, who has often shot first and thought about running an offense later.
But on Wednesday, said Miller, "it clicked." He smiled like a coach who's team had won by 27, not seven. Much to the coach's credit, in Game 22, his words appeared to be understood and applied.
The key elements of the Miller-Lyons locker room chats are these: The coach wants his point guard to avoid taking contested three-pointers early in games. He wants him to get to the foul line, or deeper, and locate teammates with well-crafted bounce passes.
Lyons had six assists Wednesday, but it seemed like 10. Only against Oral Roberts and Charleston Southern, when the opponents were vulnerable, did he have as many as six assists. Against Stanford, Lyons' passes were game-changers.
"Tonight's win was among the best we've had as a team, one of 20," Miller said. "And we've had quite a few good moments."
This is no longer the Arizona-Stanford series that became the hallmark of Pac-10 basketball for a decade, from 1995 to 2004, when the Cardinal came to McKale ranked eight times (including Nos. 2, 2, 3, 4, 7 and 8) and when the Wildcats were ranked no worse than No.16 in all 10 games.
But it looks as if it could resume as one of the league's showcase games. Coach Johnny Dawkins' team returns nine of its 10 leading players next year. The ticket to the Stanford-Arizona game at McKale will again be a coveted one.
In the glory days of the UA-Stanford rivalry, Lute Olson vs. Mike Montgomery, the Wildcats and Cardinals were the most sleek teams in the West, full of future NBA players, often the national Game of the Week, offense and shooting power everywhere.
But things have changed. Miller said, "We're a good defensive team; that's why we won tonight. There's not a lot of teams that can deal with Stanford the way we did tonight."
Two good things came from Wednesday's game. Arizona is 20-2. That's not fluff. That's almost historic at Arizona.
And there will be no return game at Maples Pavilion at Stanford.
Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or firstname.lastname@example.org