Two years ago last week, T. J. McConnell played in the Battle of the ’Burgh, Duquesne vs. Robert Morris, and people of Pittsburgh were so indifferent that only 2,687 showed up at the Palumbo Center.
Robert Morris beat McConnell’s Dukes that night, and a few months later McConnell left Pittsburgh, transferring to Arizona with the promise of playing for higher stakes.
Saturday afternoon at McKale Center, with a chance to be the nation’s No. 1 team in serious peril, McConnell dribbled slowly as the clock hit 30 seconds. Arizona led 60-58. Everybody froze.
This would be the play of the game.
“I live for those moments,” McConnell would say 20 minutes later. “I know all of us wanted it so bad.”
McConnell didn’t just carry the Wildcats down the stretch on Saturday, he refused to let them lose. Arizona couldn’t buy a bucket from anywhere. His coach, Sean Miller, referred to it as “dire straits” and went into detail about how many “four-to six-inch shots” his team missed.
If McConnell couldn’t create a basket, beat the shot clock and the UNLV defense, Arizona was probably going to lose.
When the shot clock hit 10, McConnell broke toward the basket, threaded his way through double-coverage and collapsed the entire UNLV defense. He stopped and bounced the ball to Brandon Ashley, who sped uncovered toward the rim.
Two points. Game over.
Arizona beat UNLV 63-58 on a day the Rebels might have beat any other team in the country.
It was Mark Lyons eluding Florida, driving to the backboard to beat the Gators in the clutch. It was Derrick Williams swatting a potential game-winning Washington shot into the bleachers.
Who knew the Rebels were this good?
UNLV coach Dave Rice, who has assembled a brigade of blue-chip transfers from UConn, USC, Memphis and Pitt, had unaccountably lost at home to UC-Santa Barbara and Arizona State. But midway through the first half Saturday, it was clear that the Rebels were no joke.
They shot 64 percent from the field in that half. They had the length and quickness to neutralize Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, who shot a combined 6 of 25 from the field.
“We have a good shot at being very good by the time conference rolls around,” said Rice. “We have great players. … I’m very encouraged with what I saw.”
Nobody in the white shirts, the 14,545 who filled every seat as part of the annual White Out, circled this game on the calendar or saw the Rebels coming. But as UA center Kaleb Tarczewski said of Miller’s scouting report, “we knew that they had some great pieces to the puzzle.”
It was like two NASCAR drivers, bumper to bumper at 180 mph, pushing the pedal to the floor, failing to shake the other. It’s unlikely Arizona could have played with any more intensity in the second half, which is what a team bidding to be ranked No. 1 should do.
“Arizona is ranked No. 2 and now will be No. 1,” said UNLV’s Roscoe Smith. “They didn’t just get there with no one.”
Miller seemed a bit amazed after the game as he dictated the final numbers and absorbed his team’s defensive effectiveness.
“They were 7 for 25 in the second half and 0 for 8 from three-point range,” he said, shaking his head. “They only shot four free throws.”
And yet anything less would have cost Arizona a game that everyone from here to ESPN’s front door had put in the win column the moment No. 1 Michigan State lost to North Carolina on Wednesday.
“It’s amazing (UNLV) shot that well in the first half, and we were only down three,” McConnell said. “We held them to 16 points in the second half, which is incredible.”
One suspects if you pooled UNLV’s five best players with Arizona’s starters, put them in matching jerseys and asked a neutral NBA talent scout to pick a seven-man rotation, that the Rebels would get at least three of the picks.
That’s college basketball in 2013. On a day you hope to celebrate rising to No. 1, you get a deep-dish scare. Such is the target that comes with national prominence.
“It’s not like anyone comes in here and says ‘Ah, they’re only No. 2,’ ” said Miller. “We were up against a very formidable foe.”
Immediately after the game, McConnell embraced UA assistant coach Damon Stoudamire at midcourt, shouting to the crowd, celebrating the way a team destined to be No. 1 should.
It wasn’t beating Duke or UCLA. As unexpected as it seems, it might have been better.