In the final moments of Arizona's video introductions, a red neon sign at the McKale Center ticket office flashes SOLD OUT.

I don't know if they shot that footage in 1988 or 2005, but they couldn't have filmed it at any time this season because the old arena has been, shall we say, NOT SOLD OUT, NOT EVEN CLOSE.

But on Thursday night, just like old times, the Zona Zoo was full 45 minutes before tipoff. More than 14,500 fans squeezed into the place, and it felt like basketball the way we remember it - and the way Sean Miller has been told it would be.

"We had so much energy in the building, we were so excited to perform, it almost backfired on us early," Miller said. "We rushed some things, took some quick shots."

It wasn't an epic Arizona-Stanford game from the glory years because the Wildcats are still in the infancy of their reconstruction and because the Cardinal is one player shy of what is needed to help the league's best twosome, Landry Fields and Jeremy Green, contend for the NCAA tournament.

But in two intense hours at McKale, the old rivals played with such intensity it took you back to the Adam Keefe vs. Chris Mills days and summoned to memory those wonderful, sweaty nights when Josh Childress and Brevin Knight would bring out the best in McKale.

The crowd's affection for Arizona arrived at precisely the right time.

On Thursday, the Wildcats were resourceful enough to win despite shooting .328 from the field, which, to give you some context, was the second-lowest shooting night of the year, worse than all but a .300 performance at USC.

Arizona won 76-68 while shooting an unimaginable .286 in the second half. It won because it did all of the little things right: It rebounded relentlessly and, until the final few possessions, played smart, took care of the ball and forced Stanford to foul 25 times.

"If you're a good defensive team and rebounding team, you have a chance to win (while shooting poorly) but the odds are against it," Miller said.

Ordinarily, the sign of a good team is that it can win on a night it doesn't shoot well. So perhaps this was the UA's message: Don't sleep on us.

Fields is one of those rare four-year college players who subtly improved season to season, so much so that he is probably the league's most fearsome scorer. He has length, size, instincts and a touch from as far out as 20 feet.

Arizona used Jamelle Horne, Solomon Hill and even Brendon Lavender against Fields on Thursday, and in the end it was Fields who wore them down. He scored 31 points, but for Stanford to win he would have needed 38 or 40.

Strangely, it might have been Fields' lack of selfishness that cost the Cardinal more than anything else. In an eight-point game with a bit more than four minutes remaining, Fields twice passed, once to Matei Daian and another time to Elliott Bullock, when it might have been wiser to force the action. Neither of those men scored Thursday.

Daian and Bullock both lost the ball, and Arizona pushed the lead to double figures. It was too much to overcome.

"We've just got to be smarter out there," Fields said. "Some of our choices just weren't up to par. I've got to give credit to the UA. They just wanted it more than we did."

Stanford is going to be exceedingly difficult to beat at Maples Pavilion next month. It has already swept UCLA, USC, Oregon and Oregon State there, and after getting a full look at the Cardinal on Thursday, I no longer suspect Stanford's overtime loss to Kentucky on Nov. 25 was meaningless or flukish.

Fields will be gone next year, an obvious NBA talent, but coach Johnny Dawkins has recruited the Pac-10's top-rated freshman class, including 6-foot-10-inch Dwight Powell of Florida's IMG Academy. As much as Miller has exhibited that Arizona will be a major player in the Pac-10's future, Dawkins and Stanford seem equipped to maintain the first-division tradition Mike Montgomery created from 1988 to 2004.

"We're excited about our (incoming) kids," Dawkins said. "But it's all about what we're doing right now."

The same immediacy applies to Arizona. On Sunday, the Wildcats will play Cal for a share of first place. Go ahead, pinch yourself. It's way ahead of schedule, but it's true.

It might be premature to think, dream or imagine any sort of scenario in which Arizona can win the Pac-10 and advance to the NCAA tournament, but a month ago the odds of Miller coaching a team to victories over UCLA, Washington, Oregon and ASU would have edged into fantasyland.

Paradise has not been restored at McKale Center. But it is no longer a preposterous concept.