When Arizona senior guard Mark Lyons, a transfer from Xavier, made a driving layup with 7.1 seconds left to give Arizona a 65-64 lead — and eventual win — over Florida, it ended a day that might go down in University of Arizona sports history as its best. Save for the day of the 1997 NCAA tournament championship game, of course.
Lyons’ basket gave UA two huge wins on the day, both in unfathomable ways. The Arizona football team scored 14 points in the final 42 seconds just hours before for a thrilling 49-48 win over Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl.
UA will remember the 15th of December.
“It’s a great Saturday if you like Arizona,” coach Sean Miller said with a smile.
Lyons made the day complete, as No. 8 Arizona came from behind to knock off No. 5 Florida in arguably the biggest game in McKale Center in a decade. UA was down for more than 38 minutes of the 40-minute game. Florida had only trailed three times all season and on Saturday night was down only in the first two minutes — and then not until the final seven seconds.
“It was a great day for Arizona sports,” said UA senior Solomon Hill, who finished with a game-high 18 points. “Both teams (football and basketball) looked ugly for a moment, but we both made our plays but we stayed in there.”
And won a game that had more of a mid-March feel than a December feel. March Madness came early, and the Wildcats stayed poised and fought to the end.
“That quality is sometimes more important than the actual skill part of the game,” Miller said. “That fight we had ‘til the end of the game is the reason why we won. I feel really good for our team.”
He felt good because Arizona really didn’t play all that well but found a way to win against a top-five team. It was UA’s first win over a top-five team since beating No. 4 Gonzaga 69-64 in 2008.
That the Wildcats even stayed in the game was a tribute to their intestinal fortitude. The stats don’t show any kindness. UA got dominated in the rebounding department 33-22 and went just 7 for 20 from 3-point range. Florida was both more physical and more athletic, and it appeared the Wildcats could have used some of the former players — Channing Frye (Phoenix Suns), Chase Budinger (Minnesota Timberwolves) and Michael Dickerson (former Memphis Grizzlies) — who showed up for the big game.
In the end, they didn’t need them.
“To me, there is no real loser in this game,” Miller said. “I can’t say enough good things about Florida. There is a side of me that almost feels guilty winning, because I thought they were the better team for most of the game. But it doesn’t always work out that way.”
It didn’t look like it would turn out that way for Arizona, which trailed by six with a minute left to play. Just in the final three minutes, Hill missed two 3-pointers and Lyons and Kevin Parrom each missed one. Nick Johnson missed two free throws, and Grant Jerrett made only one of two free throws when hitting both would’ve tied it after Florida turned it over on back-to-back inbounds passes.
Then up stepped Lyons for his game-winning drive and shot over Florida center Patric Young and off the glass. There have been plenty of big moments in Arizona’s recent history, and Lyons’ last shot will be remembered among them.
Yet he’s been in that position before, hitting a game-tying shot for Xavier on the road against Vanderbilt last year, forcing overtime in a game Xavier eventually won.
“That kind of put me on a different stage with my confidence,” Lyons said of the Vanderbilt game.
And how will Saturday night’s game affect his confidence?
“I’ve always been a confident guy since I stepped in the door,” he said. “The guys (on the team) give me the confidence, and I feed off them. They make plays, and I just finished the game for them.”
For Miller, it was no surprise that the game ended up in the hands of Lyons, a savvy senior who knows what it takes to win.
“You have to have players in big moments to make big shots,” Miller said, “and tonight, thank goodness, we made the big shot.
“We believe in a lot of guys on this team, but no one believes in Mark Lyons more than me. I’ve seen him since he’s been in 10th grade. Some guys are wired for the big moment, big stage. No question that when he drove … something big was going to happen.”
Big indeed. The Wildcats are now 8-0 and off to their best start since 1998. What does it all mean?
“We’re the real deal,” said Johnson, who had 15 points and four steals. “Everybody said something about our (weak) schedule before this. But it was an opportunity to prove ourselves in front of the nation.”
Arizona proved to be tough enough, coming back from 11 down with 10 minutes left in the game before closing more than half of that gap in the final minute.
For every run the Wildcats had, the Gators had an answer. Until the end.
“It was a tale of two halves,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan. “Closing out the halves, really. I told the guys at halftime, ‘If you’re going to lose the game, make them beat us.’ And we beat ourselves.
“We didn’t close out very well. We didn’t execute. We had a lot of turnovers, and that has been a big issue for us this season.”
That issue hasn’t affected Florida’s record until Saturday, but the Gators are now 7-1.
“What I love about this team is that we are never satisfied,” said Florida guard Mike Rosario, who had a team-high 16 points. “Everyone comes with the same perseverance to every game. We have of areas we can improve upon, and we just need to keep pressing through the rest of the season.”
Arizona will do the same. But these are games that solidify teams, give them confidence moving forward. For the Wildcats, a mix of experienced veterans and talented youngsters, it’ll help shape them.
“It’s a game that can change seasons,” Miller said. “When you get outplayed for majority of the game and get down big … we would have grown no matter what. It wouldn’t have been the end-all had we lost.
“We didn’t win the national championship tonight, but what we did do is that we have a win in our pocket that is very meaningful. Florida isn’t a good team, but they have the makings of a great team.”
They just happened to catch Arizona on the wrong day.