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Greg Hansen: Wildcats whistle through another improbable finish as refs almost blow it
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Greg Hansen: Wildcats whistle through another improbable finish as refs almost blow it

Utah’s Donnie Tillman slams over Keanu Pinder during the second half. The Utes rallied from a double-digit deficit, but came away with the loss.

Utah’s Tommy Connor is the Pac-12’s highest paid assistant basketball coach, at $525,000 per year, and with 4.3 seconds remaining Saturday at McKale Center, Utes boss Larry Krystkowiak essentially said, “You’re on, Tommy.”

Connor’s play didn’t work and Utah lost 74-73 but Krystkowiak said “it was a great call on coach Connor’s part.”

No matter how much Connor and Krystkowiak know about X’s and O’s and how well their basketball IQs have served them over the years, they were working against the most defining factor in college basketball: the referees on the road.

There was no way in the basketball universe that Pac-12 officials Scott Brown, a rookie, and well-traveled Dick Cartmell and Bob Staffen were going to call a foul on Arizona, at McKale Center, after they made a fishy pushing call on Allonzo Trier with 4.3 seconds remaining in a one-point game.

Maybe an in-his-prime Dave Libbey would’ve made a call in that situation 10 years ago, and before him, Booker Turner or Irv Brown.

But not Saturday and not at McKale.

Connor’s plan was to get the ball to linebacker-type Donnie Tillman, preferably in the paint, and, if nothing else, get a whistle and leave Sean Miller standing on the sideline in shock.

The first part of the play worked wonderfully; Tillman was matched against Arizona freshman Emmanuel Akot, who hasn’t played a minute of crunch time in his brief college basketball life.

Even better, Tillman caught the ball under the basket, one on one against Akot.

Alas, Tillman was about a foot too far under the basket and Akot is too physical to nudge out of the way. Tillman’s only chance was that Scott Brown — who has only officiated three Pac-12 games this year, and most recently worked the North Dakota-Eastern Washington game — would blow it. Literally and figuratively.

In a year in which Arizona has been whistling past the basketball graveyard week after week, winning improbable finish upon improbable finish, there was no whistle.

Krystkowiak knows how it goes. His athletic director was fined $10,000 two weeks ago for an overheard outburst with league director of referees Bobby Dibler. So Coach K saved $10,000 by saying, “I’m not telling you anything that will sell newspapers right now.”

With that he said he didn’t have time to do his post-game radio interview and left McKale Center for a drive to Phoenix.

For two hours, Coach K surely sat and he surely stewed about what could have been.

Arizona was beatable again on Saturday because Rawle Alkins remains idle with a foot injury and, let’s be honest, Arizona cannot replace his offensive rebounding, his inspiration and his ability to stand up and deliver in tough situations.

“You could feel us wear down in both games this week,” Miller said.

McKale Center used to be a haven for blowouts on weekends non-contenders arrived and played the roles of stooge. But this season Arizona’s 5-0 conference record at McKale has been a series of get-a-lead and give-up-the-lead finishes not for the faint of heart.

Arizona’s five home victories are by margins of 1, 6, 7, 9 and 9 and that doesn’t do justice to the angst those sellout crowds of 14,644 experienced.

Alkins’ absence is accruing like, say, interest on the rising balance on your credit card. You look at the balance and wonder how things got so tight. Yes, the Wildcats ended the first half of the Pac-12 season in first place, 8-1, but the second half includes trips to Arizona State, Washington and the Oregon schools, and what looks to be a titanic McKale showdown against USC.

It took three Dusan Ristic 3-balls for Arizona to win Saturday. He makes a 3-pointer about as often as Duke and North Carolina lose at home on the same day. OK, sure, that happened Saturday. But before that it was 1973. You get the picture.

Even Ristic, who seems certain to be voted the Pac-12 Player of the Week, said “we’ve had too many close games so far.”

Buckle up, baby.

Mostly, in a time of uncertainty Saturday, Arizona found an old familiar ally: McKale Center.

The Wildcats swept a home conference weekend for the 94th time in the last 30 years, which is often unappreciated. No one in the league is even close. UCLA has had 78 home sweeps over the same period.

The last time Arizona was swept at home in a conference weekend was January 1984. The ability to win at home is invaluable and it is why the Wildcats have gone 15-1 since Thanksgiving, a record surpassed only by No. 3 Purdue.

After victories over Colorado and Utah, Miller began his post-game remarks by thanking the Zona Zoo and all the voices sitting in the darkness at McKale.

In part, because of those voices, Arizona has seen the light.

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or ghansen@tucson.com. On Twitter: @ghansen711

Columnist

Greg graduated from Utah State, worked at two Utah newspapers, the St. Petersburg Times, the Albany Democrat-Herald in Oregon and moved to Tucson to cover UA football and baseball. He became the Star's sports columnist in 1984.

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