Much like their football-playing schoolmates did against Nevada in Albuquerque on Saturday, the basketball Wildcats pulled out a game they barely led against Florida.
That made Sean Miller feel badly. Sort of.
“There’s a side of me that almost feels guilty because they were the better team for most of the game but it doesn’t always work out that way,” Miller said, “and one of the things we did exceptionally well was we played with incredible effort all the way to the final buzzer. We gave ourselves a chance and then we had a player on the team make a great play.”
That wasn’t the only time Miller used the word “guilty” after the game. Miller and the Wildcats were able to enjoy the support of what was probably the wildest McKale Center crowd since the 2010-11 “white-out” win over Washington – and with barely any students, either.
Florida, which pulled out an overtime win over UA last season in Gainesville, Fla., before a crowd that wasn’t quite as loud, did not have such a luxury.
“We took advantage of winning in front of our fans,” Miller said. “We had an incredible crowd. That certainly helped us. If you play Florida away or on a neutral court, I think it’s a really tough task. They've got all the pieces and yeah, I feel guilty, but I’ll also take it. We’ve been on the flip side of that a few times and you’ve gotta make plays at the end of games to win it and we did.”
That’s pretty much what Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
“I told the guys at halftime, `If you’re going to lose the game, make them beat us,’ and we beat ourselves,” Donovan said. “We didn’t close out very well. We didn’t execute.”
How it broke down:
With 56 seconds left, Nick Johnson stole the ball from Mike Rosario, and that led to two free throws from Kevin Parrom,who made them both to cut Florida’s lead to 64-60.
Rosario then turned the ball over again when he tried to inbound it to Scottie Wilbekin but the ball rolled out of bounds. Miller substituted Brandon Ashley for Grant Jerrett before the play, even though Ashley struggled most of the game.
“Brandon is the longest guy on our team and … we put him in knowing it would be difficult (for Florida) to throw it deep or around him," Miller said. "But so did the other four guys (help create the turnover). I’m sure they’re saying they didn’t execute, didn’t finish there, and that’s probably not a good feeling for them.
“But when you’re in a game like this, I know they’re better because of it and so are we. I feel like we earned it by fighting to the bitter end and basketball is a game that you have to play all the way. That’s the one quality we deserve credit for tonight.”
Johnson then stole another one with 39 seconds left, this time from Kenny Boynton, and that led to a drive by Solomon Hill, who drove straight in but ultimately passed it to Grant Jerrett on the baseline because of a crowd under the basket.
Jerrett hit 1 of 2 free throws to put UA behind 64-63 and, after Boynton missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw, Arizona went to Lyons for the final shot.
Florida center Patric Young said “in the end we couldn’t quite handle their pressure, and I think that’s what cost us the game.”
Miller was told that his players said they never practiced the press they used at the end of the game.
“Our press? I don’t know if we have,” Miller said, smiling. “It was probably just good coaching. Just surprise everybody.”
Even though Miller said he felt like Florida was the better team for much of the game, that didn’t mean he felt Arizona struggled.
“I’m not concerned at all because, look, we played a great team,” Miller said. “There’s nobody who watched that game and said anything other than, `Boy, Arizona pulled that one out.’
"But I’ve also been on the other end of that spectrum where you feel like you’ve been the better team but you have to finish. And we did, we finished. We weren’t down by a significant margin so as we rallied late, we were able to take a game that was a couple of possessions and take it all the way to a one possession game. The difference in quality of play wasn’t so great that we didn’t give ourselves a chance to make that run.”
Miller has been saying all season that he’s glad to have Mark Lyons, even as his negative assist-turnover ratio has drawn plenty of attention.
What he liked about Saturday’s performance by Lyons: That Lyons didn’t have any turnovers in the second half, after three early ones, and drove confidently inside for the game-winner.
“We believe in a lot of guys on this team but nobody believes in Mark Lyons more than me,” Miller said. “I’ve seen him since he was in 10th grade and some guys are wired for the big stage, the big moment. That big shot -- he wants to take it or make the big play and no question when he drove I knew that something good was going to happen.
“It’s always good to get a drive in that last second because you have a chance to get a foul, you’ve got a chance to get an offensive rebound, and to see him get the shot was a great feeling.”
Lyons said he saw Young get switched on him, and decided to take advantage of the mismatch. He said it was the second-biggest shot of his career, next to a layup at Vanderbilt early last season that sent that game into overtime, when Xavier won.
That shot at Vanderbilt “kind of put me on a different stage and my confidence went up from there,” Lyons said.
Miller said the Wildcats have improved against zone defenses, when they struggled against them earlier against Charleston Southern and Southern Miss.
“I thought we really attacked the zone well,” Miller said. “I don’t know if we ever got out of sync or kilter against their zone and as you guys know, we’ve come a long way in the last couple of weeks to be able to say that. Because a couple of weeks ago we struggled against a zone for really 30-plus minutes.
“We also got eight turnovers in the first half, a couple where we looked like we were coming unraveled, but we played the entire second half with two. Conversely, Florida had nine turnovers in the second half to our two.”
The Wildcats today will watch film, lift weights and “do very little on the court,” Miller said, because of how hard Saturday’s game was. They have to turn around to host Oral Roberts on Tuesday.
Miller put the win in perspective toward the end of his postgame media address:
“These are moments that can change seasons,” Miller said. “You get outplayed for a majority of the game and you’re down big at home. We would have grown a lot from tonight’s game (with a loss); we would have been fine. It wasn’t the end all if we would have lost.
“But I’ll flip it and say we didn’t win the national championship tonight, but what we did do was we have a win in our pocket that’s going to be very, very meaningful because Florida isn’t a good team -- I think they have the makings of a great team."
The cumulative leads by the UA basketball and football teams Saturday?
The Wildcats led only for the final 19 seconds of the New Mexico Bowl and a total of 84 seconds in the basketball game (77 seconds of which were leads in the first three minutes).
That’s a grand total of 103 seconds, and a total of 26 seconds after halftime.
“I’m happy for our fans,” Miller said. “We have a lot of them. They’re passionate; they love the Wildcats. This was a great Saturday if you love Arizona.”
Our coverage today: A game story, seen-and-heard notes, and a notebook and a photo gallery. (Postgame interview coverage was somewhat limited because of the late tipoff and Saturday night deadlines, so hopefully this post complements it). Thanks to Daniel Berk for his hustle tonight in helping cover the game.
Here's the official box score.