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Arizona basketball

Arizona, UConn excited to renew rare cross-country rivalry

The game with Connecticut will actually be played Thursday at McKale Center, but Arizona already recorded a victory of sorts long ago.

That’s when, back on June 30, 2014, UA and UConn signed off on a two-year series that would have each visit the other’s home arena.

A real, old-fashioned, cross-country home-and-home series. The kind you don’t often see much any more, with so many multi-team events and neutral site “challenges” soaking up so many spots on teams’ nonconference schedules and making coaches reluctant to travel anywhere else.

The kind that you used to see, say, almost two decades ago, when Jim Calhoun’s Huskies hosted the Wildcats in 2000-01, beating a Wildcat team without Lute Olson, who stayed home to be with his ailing wife, Bobbi. That game was returned a year later at McKale, with UConn pulling out a 100-98 win in overtime, a rare Wildcat loss on the McKale Center floor.

That’s only some of the history behind this series, too. The last time they met, the Kemba Walker-powered Huskies edged UA in the 2011 Elite Eight, when UA’s surprising resurgence in Sean Miller’s second season ended after Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne missed late 3-pointers.

Miller was fired up about adding the series in 2014, just after UConn won its fourth NCAA title, this time under coach Kevin Ollie. While Miller was unavailable for comment before Thursday’s game, he expressed enthusiasm and appreciation over the Huskies again Monday after the Wildcats beat North Dakota State.

“There aren’t a lot of teams who want to play home and away,” Miller said. “It’s a national program. They’re a national championship team. Kevin Ollie is a national championship coach. They’ve won more than once. They’ve won four or five. Everybody respects UConn, including us.”

The only problem is, well, UConn hasn’t quite been UConn lately.

The Huskies put up their first losing season in 30 years last season, going 16-17, and it’s still uncertain how much better they are this season even as the Huskies are 7-3, with their highest-profile win over a rebuilding Oregon team.

UConn not only returned just two key players from last season, with three players transferring out, and have been able to play former McDonald’s All-America guard Alterique Gilbert for a total of just nine games between last season and the first 10 games of this one.

It’s not been easy.

“It’s definitely tough because you know what UConn’s done in the past and you want to kind of live up to that expectation,” said UConn guard Jalen Adams, who leads the Huskies in scoring with 17.3 points a game. “But with this group of guys, if we stay connected and everybody plays their part we can get right back to where we belong in the tournament and get on a good run.”

Ollie is taking an upbeat, philosophical look at it all, too.

“Once you go through a storm you don’t feel too good about it, but you know life is not going to always be peaceful,” Ollie said. “But through those storms you learn. You learn about the people that surround you. You learn something about yourself and you continue to get yourself better. I think it allowed us to get better.”

“It definitely allowed me to get better as a man and as a coach. I’ve received all those life lessons as a coach and I’ve tried to pass it on to my players. That’s what it’s all about. The basketball thing is just one thing. But they’re gonna have some life issues that’s going to come up and they’re going to have to be able to fight through them.”

The Huskies will actually get two fights in less than three days this week. Because, apparently, they like home-and-home series so much so that they agreed not only to face UA on Thursday but then go to Auburn for a game Saturday afternoon.

That forces UConn to take a red-eye charter flight after Thursday’s game so as to get at least one full day at Auburn before Saturday’s game.

But first, the Huskies will try to rely on a little history with Arizona. Not only are they 5-0 all-time against the Wildcats, including that 2001-02 overtime win at McKale, but they reached the Final Four three times by winning West Regionals held in the Phoenix area.

“This fit in great, with the tradition of Arizona and the battles we’ve had before,” Ollie said. “Our fan base is loving the game especially when they come back to Storrs next year. … We’re looking forward to it.”

And if, somehow, the Huskies can recreate some of their Arizona magic again, a lot of their problems might suddenly seem a lot further way.

“I’m just looking forward to it,” Adams said. “When we get to a big school like Arizona, we can get our name back on the map where we belong.”

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