Senior Day at McKale Center for Gabe York was a lot like Senior Day for Sean Miller 24 years ago at Pitt’s old Fitzgerald Fieldhouse. Tears and cheers.
Saturday’s crowd at McKale chanted York’s name over and over, louder each time, as he hit his sixth three-point basket, and then his seventh, his eighth and his ninth.
“It was a storybook ending,” he said.
Miller later said he would have left York in the game had he known he was one shy of the Pac-12 record.
On Arizona’s sideline, as the coach embraced everybody but the security guards, he surely thought back to March 1992, when the Pitt crowd began a similar ovation.
“Miller! Miller! Miller!”
Miller had nine assists at halftime that day; he told his teammates his goal was to break the school record, 16, set a generation earlier by Bob Shrewsbury.
Miller’s mother, grandmother, brother, sister and his future wife, Amy Watterson, watched from the bleachers, tracking assist by assist, the same way York’s mother and brother counted Gabe’s three-pointers Saturday at McKale.
The scores were even similar. Pitt beat Boston College 90-66; Arizona whipped Stanford 94-62.
Miller quickly got to 13 assists, but his chance at the record waned when his teammates missed open shots before Pitt coach Paul Evans replaced Miller in the final minutes.
“I remember yelling at my teammate Darren Morningstar, ‘you cost me,’ ” Miller said Saturday, smiling at the memory.
This time, 2,043 miles from the Pitt campus, Miller the coach and York the senior triggerman came off as kindred spirits. Both finished a play or two from a coveted record, but Senior Day was, as York said, “everything and more.”
Senior Day is the Day of Forgiveness in college basketball. For two or three happy hours, Arizona’s painful losses to Utah and Colorado, and in Miller’s case 24 years ago, anguishing setbacks to St. John’s and Georgetown, are forgotten, engulfed by the moment.
Tears are shed on Senior Day, but it’s like crying on Graduation Day.
The Wildcats didn’t cut down the nets Saturday, which is the standard expected at McKale Center. But this season it didn’t seem to matter because Arizona was beat up first by early departures to the NBA and later by injuries and, not incidentally, the rise of Oregon as the Pac-12’s best team.
Fourth place felt like first place.
York said McKale was louder than he had ever heard it, and it probably did reach a decibel level similar to those on the days Steve Kerr and Miles Simon played their last game in Tucson.
But ultimately, Miller is a realist and Senior Day must pass. In a bigger picture, Arizona’s memorable Senior Week victories over Cal and Stanford won’t have much currency in the postseason.
“Going 17-1 (at McKale) is amazing,” said Miller. “But because we haven’t lost here very much, it almost feels like we were 10-5. It’s like something went wrong because we weren’t undefeated.”
As March moves on, you get the feeling that maybe Arizona hit its potential to finish 24-7, two games behind Oregon in the Pac-12. But there is always that nagging “what if?” side of it. If you flip a few last-minute scripts, it’s not difficult to imagine Arizona at 16-2 in the conference, champs again, climbing the ladder on Senior Day and snipping away at the net for a third consecutive year.
The next few weeks are anyone’s guess, but on Saturday it was time to hit the stop button and reflect.
York visited Marquette, Washington and Notre Dame before choosing to be a Wildcat in the summer of 2011. He got a scholarship that opened when point guard MoMo Jones transferred to Iona.
In the season opener of his freshman season, 2012-13, a victory over Charleston Southern, York scored two points. He was buried on the bench behind, among others, Grant Jerrett, Angelo Chol and Jordin Mayes.
It was so long ago that UA freshman Allonzo Trier was a sophomore at Northeast Oklahoma Association of Homeschools — the NOAH Jaguars.
On Saturday, long after Jerrett, Mayes and Chol left Tucson, after Trier became a McDonald’s All-American and averaged 14 points as a Wildcat freshman, Gabe York had his day. His week.
It was eerily similar to his coach’s Senior Day at Pitt. Miller had arrived in what some ranked the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, with Bobby Martin, Brian Shorter, Darelle Porter and Jason Matthews.
But just as Panthers fans were chanting Miller’s name on Senior Day, the last man standing from that touted freshman class, York proved on Saturday that the best is often saved for last.