UA 6-foot-9-inch freshman Aaron Gordon dunks over San Diego State 6-5 freshman Dakarai Allen after catching the inbounds lob pass from T.J. McConnell. Gordon missed the free throw after being fouled, but the alley-oop gave UA a 64-58 lead with 1:21 left.
When Arizona was up against an inspired opponent, pure madness at Mac Court or Maples Pavilion, Lute Olson would often call this play:
Matt Muehlebach, lob pass to Chris Mills.
Or Jason Gardner, lob pass to Richard Jefferson.
Or Mustafa Shakur, lob pass to Andre Iguodala.
Much like Thursday’s game-clinching alley-oop lob pass from T. J. McConnell to Aaron Gordon — with an initial fake to Nick Johnson — the Wildcats have silenced raucous road crowds with the simple lob pass for 25 years.
Even at a madhouse such as San Diego State’s Viejas Arena, even with a worthy opponent on a roll, the great equalizer is having the resources — someone as talented and athletic as Mills, Jefferson, Iguodala and now Gordon — to make a play when your set offense has stalled.
On Thursday, Gordon was able to immediately get a half-step start over the Aztecs’ Dakarai Allen. Not only that, Allen is four inches shorter than the 6-9 Gordon. If you watch the replay, you’ll see that Gordon was able to get the ball into the basket by just those narrow measurements: a half-second quicker to the ball and a few inches higher.
It’s a play the Wildcats practice over and over, sometimes 10 times a day, and one that depends on the element of surprise.
“We know (Gordon) will go up and get it and he did,” Miller said after the game.
And that’s the unspoken part of a game-winning play.
Had not Gordon gone into traffic, body on body, believing he could get the ball, willing to be equal to the moment, it would’ve been batted around, a free ball, anybody’s game. You had to want it.
That’s why Gordon’s shooting range and his free-throw percentage often don’t mean much. He just makes plays.
The Wildcats won at San Diego State because they limited the Aztecs to 36 percent shooting from the field. In the entire 2012-13 season, Arizona only twice held Pac-12 opponents under 36 percent (USC, 28.1; Washington 30.8). And the Wildcats won because they committed just three turnovers in a stressful second half.
You can get to the Final Four with those three variables: good defense, the elimination of mistakes with the ball, and someone making a big play in the last two minutes.
It wasn’t close to the UA’s most telling early-season nonconference victory. The Wildcats went to No. 3 Iowa in December 1987 — Olson’s much-anticipated return to Iowa City — and beat the Hawkeyes 66-59.
But Thursday’s visit to San Diego State is a game every other Pac-12 team probably would’ve lost.