Greg Hansen: Memories of classic rivalry are stirred up

2010-03-05T00:00:00Z 2012-03-28T17:03:10Z Greg Hansen: Memories of classic rivalry are stirred upGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 05, 2010 12:00 am  • 

In the old days, the annual UCLA-Arizona Armageddon was so beguiling that eight SoCal beat writers, a few columnists and a wordsmith from Sports Illustrated would accompany the Bruins to McKale Center.

It was the Pac-10's spotlight dance of the season, an attention-grabbing, pollsters-on-alert confrontation of such magnitude that Miles Simon once said he couldn't breathe until the first TV timeout.

Compare that to Thursday's not-so-epic game at McKale, the first of the Pac-10 era in which Arizona and the Bruins arrived with non-winning records.

Three beat writers made the trip from SoCal. No columnists. No Sports Illustrated. Not even a scout from the NIT. Press row was condensed into a scrum of 16 shoulder-to-shoulder scribblers and radio-TV guys.

The media turnout was unusually small because Arizona and UCLA had experienced a rare power failure over the first four months of the season. Finally, in the last 10 minutes Thursday, the lights came back on at McKale.

Arizona beat UCLA 78-73 in a mistake-laden game that turned out to be a thing of beauty for the Wildcats. Kyle Fogg played the role of Mike Bibby, burying seven three-pointers when Arizona absolutely, positively could not have won without them.

Arizona scored 49 points in the second half against the plodding, zone-dawdling Bruins, shooting .636 percent afield. If the Wildcats have had a better half this year, it doesn't immediately come to mind.

"It was a fire I've never felt before," UA freshman MoMo Jones said. "We just had a momentum that I don't think we were going to be stopped."

At the end, it wasn't really a fire as much as it was an inferno. It brought back the spirit of the classic UA-UCLA rivalry that was always the No. 1 sporting event in this city, year after year after year.

From 1991 to 1999, Arizona and UCLA were ranked in the Top 25 in eight of nine Tucson games. Here's some context: Across a 12-year period, 1988-2000, UA teams entered the UCLA-at-McKale game with respective records of 17-1, 19-3, 15-4, 12-2, 10-1, 23-3, 20-4, 12-3, 15-5, 9-3, 21-6 and 22-4.

Arizona trailed by 14 midway through the second half, and Sean Miller feared the Wildcats were at a tipping point.

Who didn't, after what Arizona has been through?

"I thought we were in that awkward stage, oh-oh, we could get down by 20," Miller said. "Maybe it's a testament to all we've been through, having experienced that."

The Bruins were a patchwork team, missing so many pieces that you couldn't keep track. Given that vulnerability, the crowd seemed to wear them down as much as Fogg and Jones.

"I thought it was our best win of the season," Miller said. "As much as we've been through this season, very gratifying for everybody in our locker room to have the wherewithal and fight to keep playing.

"It was the emotion of McKale. I have such a strong feeling for our fans - knowing they're watching a team that is 14-14 in early March - and sticking with us at halftime, giving us the lift we really needed to do what we did tonight."

Thursday's buildup, or lack of it, created the most unusual UA-UCLA setting of the past 25 years. There would be no tangible gain in the RPI listings. It would be one of the few times that beating the Bruins doesn't get Arizona much more than a happy feeling entering Saturday's Senior Day festivities against Kevin O'Neill.

If you think it was loud Thursday, it will be a madhouse on Saturday. The Wildcats can now finish third in the Pac-10, which, even in a weak league, would be mind-boggling.

But this time, after 80-something practice sessions, Miller saw something in practice early in the week that he liked. He said he could sense something good happening, although, trailing 39-29 at halftime, it tested his patience and that of the fans.

"We've been a .500 team from start to finish," Miller said. "We continue to have that resolve and move forward. I wish you could have watched us practice Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

"A lot of things came our way. Each of the last two wins were remarkable, inasmuch as they represented a lot of fight, and the type of things we want at this time of the year."

The odd scene, with two Pac-10 titans playing for a middle-of-the-league finish, and, likely, a berth in the NIT, is the price paid by two once-proud franchises who have been reduced to mediocrity by a disabling exodus of star players to the NBA.

The Bruins won't be down long. Their three-man recruiting class should get them back in the NCAA tournament picture next season. Nor will the Wildcats struggle with .500 much longer. This was probably a preview of another long series of UCLA-Arizona battles for Pac-10 superiority.

We can't wait.

Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or ghansen@azstarnet.com

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