Arizona puts on award-winning show to wrap up Pac-12 title
More than 14,500 Arizona fans turned out Sunday night to see a team that might be one of the best in program history for the final time at McKale Center this season. The Wildcats, as was the case in the previous 17 home games, didn’t disappoint, beating Stanford 79-66 in a game that wasn’t even that close to improve to 27-2 overall and clinch the Pac-12 regular-season championship.
The fans who showed up didn’t get much drama given that Arizona led wire to wire, but they did get to see senior Jordin Mayes make the first start of his career in the final home game of his career. They also got to witness a little emotion from Sean Miller, who seemed as if he could have teared up but managed not to after winning his second Pac-12 title in five years.
"I could probably cry, yell or scream, but I try to keep it in check," Miller said after he and the Wildcats cut down the net. "This is what we do it for. To see our team come together — and I always look at it as playing in McKale and not wanting to let the crowd down. … It’s an incredible feeling."
It’s one Arizona fans have been lucky enough to enjoy 13 times now through the years, and it never gets old.
For the coaches and players, it means a little more.
"I could not have predicted the great attitude and unselfishness of our players," Miller said. "They are very unselfish."
This is what we do it for. To see our team come together — and I always look at it as playing in McKale and not wanting to let the crowd down. … It’s an incredible feeling.
Sean Miller on Arizona winning the Pac-12 title
It also marked the reaching of one of the team’s three goals for this season. The others? Win the Pac-12 tournament, which starts March 12 in Las Vegas, and win the NCAA tournament.
"It’s (a) check on one of them," said Arizona leader Nick Johnson, who wore the net around his neck. "We want to go down in Arizona history. … We’re trying to stay with it. We have a tough road ahead of us, but we’re clicking on all cylinders."
They certainly were Sunday night. The Wildcats, ranked No. 3 in the polls but widely regarded as the possible No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, put on a highlight-reel performance in the win over the Cardinal. About the only thing that slowed them down was the pulled hamstring longtime referee Verne Harris suffered with 16:24 left in the game.
Arizona led 4-0, 13-4 and 41-23, with Stanford never seriously threatening to keep up. The Wildcats finished with 16 fast-break points; the Cardinal had zero.
"They got off to a fast start and were able to maintain that throughout the game," said Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins, whose team is now 18-10, 9-7.
It was a best-picture-caliber performance.
Drum roll, please:
Best shot: Gabe York’s third 3-pointer of the night. He finished with 12 points, all coming in succession.
Best senior moment: Mayes getting the first start of his career. He’s now been part of 107 Arizona victories, second most ever (tied with Luke Walton, Jason Gardner).
Best dunk: Aaron Gordon’s alley-oop throwdown from T.J. McConnell that got the party started at 10-3.
Best pass: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s perfect bounce pass to Gordon under the basket for a dunk that made it 28-17.
Best sequence: Hollis-Jefferson’s block on a shot by Stanford’s Chasson Randle that the freshman recovered and took the length of the court for an acrobatic basket.
And finally, best acting: Gordon’s fake behind-the-back pass on a driving basket.
"I’ve been doing that since the ninth grade," said a smiling Gordon, who finished with 19 points and a career-best 15 rebounds. "I’ve just been waiting for the right time to do it. It’s just something I pulled out."
Evern Miller admitted to going "wow," even if it was under his breath.
"We have a lot of players who can make athletic plays," Miller said. "The thing I like about our team right now is that we’re really unselfish."
Miller then deliver a postgame speech even a good script writer would applaud: "I can’t stress this enough. Today is Sunday, but we could be selfish on Monday. I never take for granted (the) next day and the sun rises that somebody outside of our locker room (couldn’t) poison one or two players on our team so that the only thing they now care about is themselves. And the second that it happens … we’re very average. It is a fight every single day."
Such is life when you have the sort of talent Arizona has accumulated. It’s no secret that Gordon is expected to leave for the NBA — and a probably lottery spot — after a standout freshman season. Johnson, a junior, could also be done. As the two cut down the nets, the loud-and-proud student section at McKale Center chanted "One more year!"
How does Miller deal with the possibility?
"We’re going to sign 19 guys," Miller quipped.
The players don’t pay attention.
"That’s looking too far into the future if you ask me," Gordon said when asked about the chants. "As close as it may be (to the end of the season), we’re focused on the present and focused on winning games right now."
Added Johnson: "McKale is a great place. It’s been really good to me in my years here … I’m not thinking about that right now."
Arizona still has two regular-season games remaining, finishing the regular season on the road against the Oregon schools for its final two games.
"It feels good, but it’s not the final stop on our destination," Gordon said.