Lyons relishes role as Arizona's captain clutch
TUCSON, Ariz. – He’s Arizona’s Mr. Big Shot.
Yes, Mark Lyons has been that big. In fact, not since Arizona sharp-shooter Salim Stoudamire has there been such a player who has been so clutch.
There are plenty of games to be played and perhaps a deep NCAA run to be made. But for whatever the future brings for Arizona, Lyons figures to be in the middle of it.
From his late-game, heart-stopping shot in a 65-64 win against Florida to late-game free throws that have helped Arizona survive other close calls, Lyons has been front and center of Arizona’s 14-0 start.
“One of the big reasons why we’re here undefeated is just his clutch play, especially from the line,” said Sean Miller, head coach of the fourth-ranked Wildcats.
It's not just the big shots Lyons has hit; it's the calm and cool manner in which he's made them appear like nothing out of the ordinary.
Oh, the pressure. Then again, maybe not.
“Honestly, it’s not tough at all when your teammates have confidence in you,” Lyons said. “They’re the ones putting the ball in my hands, my teammates and Coach, so if I miss, I know they have confidence in me.
"They had confidence in me to shoot my shots, so I’m not going to get down, and I don’t think my teammates will be down on me either."
Arizona will need everything Lyons and his teammates can offer this weekend on the Oregon Trail, one of the tougher road trips in the conference.
“It’s our job to be better than Oregon and Oregon State,” said Miller, anticipating a “great atmosphere” on Thursday in Eugene, Ore. “We could hit a rough patch and (still) be just fine.”
Arizona goes in at 2-0 in Pac-12 Conference play after last week's close calls against Colorado and Utah. The Wildcats have won 14 of 27 conference road games in the past three years under Miller.
If the Wildcats can stay close, they will likely look to Lyons to make good things happen late in the game, although Miller said senior Solomon Hill and sophomore Nick Johnson also have demonstrated a knack for late-game heroics.
Lyons is 10 for 10 from the foul line in a game’s final two minutes. He hit two huge free throws against Colorado to tie the score with 9 seconds left in what turned out to be a 92-83 overtime victory. He had two more with 7 seconds to go in Arizona's 60-57 win over Utah. And he had hit a pair of free throws to give Arizona the lead and the win against San Diego State, 68-67.
So far, he's been as perfect in the clutch as his team's record – although there has been an instance or two when he thought he had lost the team games only to eventually save their bacon.
“Making clutch free throws is not an easy thing,” Miller said. ““He’s made them now for 14 straight games.”
Lyons credits growing up in New York City for his give-me-the-ball and get-out-of-the-way grittiness.
“Playing street ball, it’s a rough environment up there,” he said.
“You have to be competitive and relish big-time moments, because that’s where great players are made.”
Tough times forge future champions. Clutch players are remembered.
“Great players relish those moments; great players relish clutch situations,” he said. “If you don’t want the ball in the clutch, you’re not a big-time performer. That’s where the game is won or lost, and I want to be the person to win the game or lose the game. I don’t want my teammates to have to have that on their back, because some players can’t bounce back from things like that.”
If there’s one thing Lyons believes in, it's himself. If he didn't, who would?
And from there, it get contagious.
Against Colorado, when Arizona absolutely needed the two points, “we already knew (he’d) make them,” senior teammate Kevin Parrom said.
It's the same swagger former Wildcat Stoudamire had during the mid-2000s. Whether it was hitting a big shot over UCLA’s Arron Afflalo for a win, or against Arizona State at the buzzer for another win, or a jumper to send Arizona to the Elite Eight in 2005, no one did it better.
“Salim was a great player. I used to watch Salim Stoudamire and Hassan Adams and all those guys; they were great players,” said Lyons.
Miller says being "that guy" takes a rare combination of confidence and ability.
“You always have a good feeling for (Lyons) because if he misses, it’s not a question of saying, ‘should I be the guy?’ " Miller said "He thinks he’s THE guy. That’s what makes those guys in the clutch so good.”