Hansen's Sunday Notebook: In lob they trust

During Lute Olson's heyday, there always seemed to be that one player that rose above the rest (literally) and came down with a clutch basket. Aaron Gordon is that guy. Read about that and more in Greg Hansen's weekly sports roundup.

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  • 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.

  • Of all the elite-level high school seniors to sign letters of intent with Arizona last week, no one got more national attention than Mater Dei (Calif.) wing Stanley Johnson, who made his announcement live on ESPNU.

    Given Johnson’s national basketball profile, here’s my list of the UA’s big four signees last week:

    1. George Cunningham, men’s golf. Ranked No. 2 nationally by Golfweek magazine in the Class of 2014, Cunningham, who has lived in Tucson for two years and is home-schooled, is probably the highest-ranked golfer to sign with Arizona in more than 10 years.

    “George actually committed to (former UA coach) Rick LaRose before I took the job,” said UA coach Jim Anderson. “We were fortunate to keep him. George has already played in the European Tour qualifying school. He’s played everywhere; his whole deal is that he’s absolutely driven to be the most successful pro golfer he can be. He will literally set up his school schedule so he can play golf all afternoon.”

    2. Michael Kopech, baseball. Perfect Game baseball ranks Kopech the No. 35 prospect in the Class of 2014. The right-hander from Mount Pleasant, Texas, has been clocked with a 94 mph fastball. He struck out 105 in 60 innings in his high school junior season.

    3. Alexandra Martelle, swimming. The versatile Charlotte, N.C., resident has been on the national recruiting radar since 2011, when she won the North Carolina state title in the 200 IM by five seconds.

    4. Natalia Forero, women’s golf. UA coach Laura Ianello’s two-person class of Salpointe’s two-time state champion Krystal Quihuis and Forero, is among the best in NCAA golf. Forero was a world champion when she was 13, in 2009. The high school senior from Cali, Colombia, won an IJGT event in Phoenix this year by 13 strokes and is ranked No. 47 in the world for girls 17-under.

  • If you break down Salpointe Catholic’s 12-0 run to the Division II state football semifinals, it’s impressive that Dennis Bene’s team has won every way possible. It won with 56 rushing attempts against Ironwood Ridge, and it won with just 10 rushes against Rincon/University. It won with just three completed passes against Tucson High. It won with 17 completions and 306 yards against Mountain View. Whatever it takes, the Lancers have been able to produce. And while the Lancers’ offense gets so much attention, averaging 49 points per game, the defense has five players who have made at least 10 tackles-for-loss: Brandt DavidsonKevin HamlettJake CasteelJay Williams and Taylor Powell. My only complaint? The AIA scheduled this week’s state semifinal to be played at Marana High School. Yes, the new field turf at MHS is terrific, but it is the most remote location possible for those deciding whether to attend.

  • Sabino football coach Jay Campos completed the playoff season with 106 career victories, but he’s not done yet. He has been selected to be an assistant coach at the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl on Jan. 5 in Carson, Calif. He will be joined by star lineman Andrew Mike and tight end Matt Bushman, who completed his Sabercats season with 63 catches for 1,583 yards on Friday.

  • Bushman, who is the most prominent three-sport athlete in the region, appears to have a worthy replacement. Rio Rico High School’s Sean Fanning completed his freshman season rushing for 448 yards and passing for 837 yards, despite missing about half of the season with a broken collarbone. Fanning is now playing basketball for the Hawks, and projects as a baseball player of note; he was part of the Rio Rico All-Star team that won the Junior Little League national championship last summer.

  • Former Tucson basketball rivals Michael Perez of Pueblo and Tim Derksen of Amphi met Friday night in San Francisco. Perez’s Nevada Wolf Pack won 92-90; he scored 15 points in 38 minutes. Derksen scored eight in 25 minutes for the USF Dons.

  • After Pima College went 1-21 in ACCAC men’s basketball last year, 6-24 overall, the school hired former Salpointe Catholic and Ironwood Ridge coach Brian Peabody to change things. Last week, in Pima’s first ACCAC game, the Aztecs beat Eastern Arizona 99-96. The resourceful Peabody is using 25-year-old former Tucson High player Murphy Gershman at center. He had been working as a plumber and playing basketball at the YMCA and in adult leagues. He had 21 points and 12 rebounds last week. Peabody was told about Gershman by the father of one of his former Salpointe players, Jerry Ledesma, whose son Stevie Ledesma, is now an assistant coach at Regis College in Denver. Gershman is now studying to be an electric engineer. Great story.

  • Ten-time Arizona All-American swimmer Marcus Titus, a former member of the U.S. national swimming team, 2009-12, is making a comeback for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The Flowing Wells High School grad left swimming after finishing eighth in the 100 breast stroke at the USA Olympic Trials in June 2012 in Omaha, Neb. At 27, Titus has resumed swimming with the Ford Aquatics program and is about to launch a fund-raising program to cover his training program. He is one of the most successful deaf swimmers in history.

  • When Cleveland’s Terry Francona and Pittsburgh’s Clint Hurdle were both named 2012 Managers of the Year by Major League Baseball last week, they might have had a block party. Hurdle and Francona both own homes in the La Paloma Country Club area and spent some of the off-season here.

  • The Tucson Champs Academy, which was created about a year ago by former big-league baseball players Eddie Leon, of Tucson High/UA and George Arias, Pueblo/UA, and by former UA All-American softball shortstop Laura Espinoza Watson, had a happy celebration Friday night at Hi Corbett Field. That’s when their first pupil, Empire High softball player Sabrina Tebou, signed a letter-of-intent to play for Loyola Marymount. Tebou hit .513 last year. The Academy is designed on the concepts of the PGA Tour’s First Tee program, promoting academics and accountability as much as baseball and softball, and operates at Hi Corbett and the Reid Park annex complex. Arias coaches nine youth baseball teams; Watson has seven youth softball teams. Go to azinternationalbaseball.com for information.

  • Eight players from Tucson-area high schools, and two Tucson coaches, returned to Emporia (Kan.) State last week to be inducted into the school’s sports Hall of Fame.

    The ’87 ESU baseball team (56-12) finished second at the NAIA World Series, and was coached by Palo Verde High grad Dave Bingham and fellow Titans grad Al Ruiz.

    The eight Tucsonans inducted into the Hall of Fame included Conrad Lindo, Sunnyside; Johnny Hernandez, Tucson; Jose Gonzalez and Anthony Catalano, Cholla; David Santa Cruz, Salpointe; Saul Soltero, Catalina; Jaime Cuesta and Pepe Valencia, Pueblo.

    With Tucson players heavily represented, Emporia State won the 1978 NAIA title and finished fifth in 1986, winning 54 games. Bingham later became the head coach at Kansas.

  • From the excesses in college sports file: Arizona State has hired the headhunting firm Korn/Ferry International to search for an athletic director to replace Steve Patterson. That’s about $200,000 to $250,000.

    ASU similarly hired a six-figure search firm to help it hire Todd Graham two years ago, a clumsy operation that ultimately led to the departure of AD Lisa Love.

    When Arizona replaced Jim Livengood, it paid former Arizona AD Ced Dempsey ‚— for his intuition — and Dempsey found Greg Byrne. It probably cost Arizona less than $50,000.

    And when Byrne hired Rich Rodriguez, he was a one-man search committee. Cost: a couple of airline tickets and hotel nights.

    College athletics don’t always have to be complicated and expensive. Hiring an AD and a football coach should neither break the bank nor tax a school’s brainpower.

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