For Arizona’s McConnell, it’s hard to say goodbye

 

T.J. McConnell sat alone in front of his locker, head down, towel around his neck.

The final reporter had cleared away and Arizona’s senior point guard was left to think about the final question he was asked, one about the sudden, cruel way a college basketball season can end in a regional final.

And then his eyes filled again.

Everyone saw McConnell’s emotional tear-filled hug with coach Sean Miller as he left the court for the final time as a Wildcat after an 85-78 loss to Wisconsin at Staples Center. But there was one more hug left before the locker room was closed and the bus started for the airport. McConnell rose and was buried in a bear hug from graduate assistant coach Joseph Blair.

It’s not going to be easy for Arizona to say goodbye to McConnell, a two-year starter who put the "point guard" back in Point Guard U.

"That’s a tough one," Arizona junior Gabe York said. "He’s given so much to this program, and I feel for him, I feel bad he had to end his senior year like this. … When you have someone who gives all-out effort like he does, you just feel for him."

McConnell, whose senior season rose to the level where he was prominently discussed as a potential Pac-12 Player of the Year, finished his college career with 14 points, five assists and two steals against top-seeded Wisconsin. That’s not bad, but the Badgers were too busy with a historic shooting effort in the second half to allow McConnell to take over the game.

When he hugged Miller, McConnell said he apologized for not being able to get the coach to the Final Four.

Wisconsin 85, Arizona 78

"I’ve said this like 600 times, but he’s like my dad and I’m going to miss playing for him. It sucks. I wanted to get him and this team to the Final Four," McConnell said. "He’s made me a better man, and I’m going to miss him for that."

McConnell said Miller offered a positive message in the locker room, focused on a 34-4 record, back-to-back regular-season Pac-12 titles and a conference tournament championship.

"He said we accomplished a lot this year and if people want to say anything about us only getting to the Elite Eight, they can go kick rocks," McConnell said.

The subtitle to Arizona in 2014-15 should be "The season of T.J."

Following a good junior year — the first he was eligible at Arizona after his transferred from Duquesne — McConnell emerged as the lovable, irrepressible, undeniable leader of the Wildcats, whose clever passing, deadly mid-range game and full-time hustle mean he likely won’t have to purchase many beverages in Tucson ever again.

His 238 assists are the second most in a season at Arizona. His 83 steals are the third most in a season for a Wildcat. He averaged slightly more than three assists for every turnover he had at Arizona.

"You get wide-open shots when someone like him is at the helm," York said. "I think we, and all of Arizona, are going to miss him very much."

McConnell has one more assist left in him, though, and that is to, presumably, hand off the starting point guard role to slippery-quick, 5-foot-10 Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who will be a sophomore next season.

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"He’s way better than me. He’s going to be better than I was here," McConnell said. "I’ve said this before: Tucson is in great hands with Parker. I love him to death.

"Running the team, he’s way beyond his years. You guys don’t see him in practice, the way he kills me in practice most of the time. He runs the team. He can shoot. He can do it all. People underestimate him because of his size and that’s when he kills them."

He knows of what he speaks, because opponents underestimated McConnell for years. He doesn’t look like much but he won 67 games in two seasons at Arizona, as did sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

"They’re the two greatest kids that I’ve ever coached," Miller said. "They’ve done everything that we asked. They play so hard every day that it becomes contagious. In my estimation, the greatest compliment that you can give these guys when they leave is that you’re trying to find those that are like them to bring more in."

McConnell’s next task is to find a place to play basketball, somewhere, for as long as he can. And then there is almost no doubt that he will be Coach McConnell.

"Absolutely," he said. "And hopefully, I’ll be with coach Miller, that’s for sure."

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