Access to McKale Center on Friday was almost game-day tight. Unless you were part of the ESPN production brigade, or could correctly punch an access code into the security system, or are related to Houdini, the building was impenetrable.
At noon, as UA point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright walked 40 yards from McKale to the school’s Ginny L. Clements Academic Center, two security guards patrolled the arena’s main entry on Fred Enke Drive.
It made you wonder if Lady Gaga was scheduled to perform.
There might yet be singing and dancing if No. 4 Arizona beats No. 5 UCLA in the Pac-12’s Game of the Year/Decade/Century on Saturday night, but it’ll cost you to be part of the crowd.
Someone on Craigslist offered four second-row seats (and a parking pass) for $4,000. The StubHub market listed floor seats for $800 each, and advertised third-deck nosebleed seats for $224 apiece.
What is this, “La La Land?”
Tucson isn’t without basketball chops. McKale Center has been the site of No. 7 Duke vs. No. 9 Arizona in 1991, and a colossal showdown between No. 8 Kansas and No. 4 Arizona in 2001.
But this is different. This is the West Coast basketball equivalent of Michigan vs. Ohio State football at the Horseshoe or the Big House.
This is the 25th anniversary of the Greatest Game Ever Played at McKale, the pain from which still hasn’t fully cleared the system of long-standing UA basketball followers.
Remember? On Jan.11, 1992, No. 2 UCLA broke Arizona’s 71-game McKale Center winning streak, 89-87, on a jump shot by Darrick Martin with a fraction of a second on the clock.
Tickets for that game were advertised for $400 per pair in the Daily Star’s classified section on a day Bruins shooting forward Don MacLean played the role of villain like no one else in UA history. MacLean scored 38 points, 23 in the second half.
He sprinted off the court, he said, “because I didn’t want someone to throw something at me.”
The next day’s newspaper pictured Lute Olson’s wife, Bobbi, helping to wipe away the tears of their granddaughter, Julie Brase.
That was a Big Game and then some, and remains, in my respectful opinion, one of the three greatest games in league history. Given its late date on the calendar, its meaning to the conference race and the currency it lends to March bracketology , Saturday’s game could make it a Mount Rushmore.
It might threaten No. 1 if the 3-point snipers from UCLA and Sean Miller’s Eight-Man Gang can take it to the limit with no resolution until the final minute (or, please, Lord, the final possession).
It takes a special UCLA crew to win in Tucson; the Bruins have won just seven games in Tucson over the last 30 years. All seven of those McKale-conquering teams (a combined 205-42) won the Pac-12 championship. Four of them reached the Final Four. Two more made it to the Elite Eight.
Until now, the three most celebrated games in Pac-12 history have one common theme: the home team lost. Here’s the list:
1. March 7, 1981: No. 5 Arizona State (22-3) at No. 1 Oregon State (26-0). It was Senior Day in Corvallis, the first of its kind, and the Beavers made the rookie mistake of honoring their seniors before the game. The pregame tears led to postgame tears.
When the Pac-10 player of the year, center Steve Johnson, was whistled for two fouls in the first 90 seconds, the ridiculously talented Fat Lever-Byron Scott Sun Devils soared to a 40-20 lead and won by 20.
“They didn’t play like the No. 1 team,” said ASU center Alton Lister, a future first-round draft pick. “They must have thought we were supposed to lay down for them. Hey, it was over at half.”
2. Jan. 11, 1992: No. 2 UCLA (9-0) at No. 6 Arizona (10-1). A day before the game, Bruins coach Jim Harrick was asked if he had ever played in a more formidable setting.
“When I was in high school we had to go to Cabin Creek, West Virginia, to play against Jerry West’s team,” he said. “It gave you some second thoughts.”
UCLA was so good that MacLean, who was about to become the Pac-12’s career scoring leader, wasn’t even the top threat on his team. Shooting forward Tracy Murray averaged 23.9 points entering the game.
3. March 8, 2001: No. 8 Arizona (21-7) at No. 1 Stanford (27-1). The Wildcats had splintered at midseason when Olson’s wife, Bobbi, died of ovarian cancer. But once Olson returned, Arizona became a force and reached the national championship game.
It won at Maples Pavilion 76-75 on Michael Wright’s short jumper with three seconds remaining.
“Let’s meet again in Minneapolis,” Olson said, referencing the site of that year’s Final Four.
Alas, Stanford, which finished 31-3, was upset by Maryland in the Elite Eight.
Since then, over 16 long years, the Pac-12 has ached for a setting to match its predecessors of 1981, 1992 and 2001. In 2009, Lady Gaga recorded “So Happy I Could Die.”
Saturday’s winner will be able to sing along.