Pressure in college basketball isn’t necessarily trailing Washington 50-49 with 12 minutes remaining, the nation’s No. 1 ranking teetering and at risk.
Sometimes it’s knowing the school president and your athletic director have scheduled a press conference after the game to discuss the $80 million restoration of McKale Center.
How would it look, banking the first $15.8 million, if you couldn’t beat the Huskies?
On Saturday, the tension was such that 64-year-old UA president Ann Weaver Hart compared it to a treadmill test.
For 38 minutes, the Wildcats huffed and puffed but couldn’t put Washington away. Arizona played hard. The Huskies played harder. Nick Johnson put on a dunking festival — five, count ’em, five dunks — but Washington’s C. J. Wilcox answered each dunk with a deadly jumper.
Sean Miller knew the drill, this basketball stress test, all too well.
“I’ve coached against Washington 10 times, and I feel every one of those games was about like this one,” Arizona’s coach said.
The Huskies have a lot of new names and faces — Perris Blackwell on the glass, Nigel Williams-Goss running the offense — but it didn’t seem much different than Isaiah Thomas and Quincy Pondexter helping the Huskies win five of those games.
“We weathered the storm until the end,” said UW coach Lorenzo Romar, who might have done the best coaching of his 13 seasons in the Arizona-Washington rivalry. “I tell you, our guys gave it everything they had.”
Arizona won 71-62. It seemed like 71-70.
The Huskies couldn’t match Arizona’s size and couldn’t make quiet the din created by a Zoo-worthy capacity crowd. But to Romar’s credit, his team forced Arizona to run uphill for 38 minutes.
Leading 50-49 with 12 minutes remaining, the Huskies were shooting an even 50 percent (22 for 44 afield) against an Arizona defense that limits opponents to .362 percent, the lowest in McKale Center history.
And yet the Huskies led by just one point. There probably aren’t more than five or 10 teams in the country that could have kept that up, not at McKale, not this year, and ultimately it was too much for Romar’s size-challenged team.
Washington missed 13 of its final 16 shots, almost all of them strongly contested, as Arizona’s defense matched the energy in the building.
“Let’s not forget,” said Romar, “Arizona may be the best defensive team around, anywhere.”
This doesn’t appear to be one of those blow-the-other-guy-to-smithereens Arizona teams like those Lute Olson operated, winning by ridiculous, double-figure margins. Saturday’s game might have been the surest preview of what the final 16 games of the Pac-12 season will be.
A crisis every night. A battle on the glass. Forty minutes of tension.
Arizona won on Saturday because it knocked the Huskies off track in the final 12 minutes. On a day Kaleb Tarczewski missed eight of his 10 shots, all within dunking range over smaller opposition, on a day the Huskies got career-type contributions, 21 points and 15 rebounds, from their inside tandem of Blackwell and Shawn Kemp Jr., the Wildcats didn’t out-shoot or outrun anybody.
In some years, those variables would have resulted in a loss, the way it did last year when Cal won 77-69 at McKale. But this Arizona team is built differently. It out-rebounded the Huskies 26-17 in the second half when nothing less would’ve been acceptable.
Aaron Gordon grabbed 10 of those rebounds. It seemed like he had 20.
Gordon finished with an 18-11 double-double, and his 18 points were the strangest mix you can imagine. He made two uncalled bank shots in traffic. And he made six follow-shots on the offensive glass. It was much less sexy than making eight jump shots, but they counted just as much.
He is the most unconventional double-figure scorer the Wildcats have had in 30 years. Gordon is now shooting 51 percent from the field, and you almost swear he’s shooting 21 percent until you see the final statistics.
“He changed the game,” said Miller.
On Saturday, the Wildcats got a taste of what lies ahead. It got Washington’s best shot, and then some. When Arizona arrives at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night, you can expect the first full-house (or anything close to it) this season; the Bruins will be on a mission to chop down the nation’s top-ranked team.
Miller seems to relish the opportunity as No. 1. “It’s not a burden,” he said.
He remembers, as an assistant coach at North Carolina State, traveling to Cameron Indoor Stadium to play Duke. It was a special event even if the Blue Devils were outside the top 10.
“But it was just different when they were No. 1,” he said.
This is different, too. Arizona is No. 1, and the target on its back continues to grow.
Isn’t it fun?