TUCSON, ARIZ. - There is a buzz that runs through a basketball arena during a big game, and Arizona's McKale Center pulsated with it Saturday.
ESPN was on hand. And so were 14,619 fans – most of them dressed in white as part of a spirit promotion.
They roared as the home team bolted out of the gate, seemingly on the verge of a knockout punch. Then they murmured encouragement as the visitors came charging back. And finally, they celebrated as Washington missed two last-gasp chances in the final three seconds, preserving an 87-86 Pacific-10 Conference win for the home team.
“I thought it was two teams playing hard, playing very competitively with a lot at stake,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said. “Both teams not wanting to give the other an inch.”
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In so close a game, the Huskies had no shortage of regrets.
They lamented falling behind early, allowing the crowd to become a factor. And they regretted not taking full advantage of their improved play early in the second half.
Washington fell behind in the second minute and didn’t pull even until nine minutes from the end, when a C.J. Wilcox 3-pointer knotted things at 68-all.
However, all of that was prelude to a grinding final sequence that most fans will mentally replay in joy or agony, depending on the rooting interest.
No. 12-ranked Arizona (23-4 overall, 12-2 Pac-10) scored what would prove to be the winning points on a play when the Huskies did a lot well, as Justin Holiday blocked a Jesse Perry shot under the basket. However, the loose ball was retrieved by Solomon Hill, whose put-back gave the Wildcats and 86-85 lead 22 seconds from the end.
“I blocked it right into the other guy’s hand,” Holiday said. “ Sometimes stuff doesn’t go your way.”
As it turned out, stuff was just getting started.
Washington (18-8, 10-5) tried to answer by going to Matthew Bryan-Amaning – a logical choice given his team-high 24 points. But in this instance the big man traveled with three seconds to play.
However, Arizona botched the in-bounds pass, returning possession to Washington with 2.2 seconds remaining.
This time, the Huskies used Bryan-Amaning as a decoy and screen, going instead to Darnell Gant, who launched a short hook. However, Arizona’s Derrick Williams anticipated the shot, launched himself at the ball, and blocked it at – or perhaps just beyond – the peak of its arc.
Williams’ take: “When I was going up, that’s when he first released the ball. I just tapped it perfectly, and luckily they didn’t call goaltending. I believe if we were at Washington, they might have called it goaltending – but good thing we were at home.”
Gant’s take: “I thought it was a goaltend. I thought I got it up before he could get there. I thought the ball was coming down, but they called the other way.”
Williams’ block went out of bounds, and that gave Washington one last chance.
However, it was a slim one with two-tenths of a second to go. And a desperation final tap never got near the basket, allowing the Wildcats and their fans to finally let loose in full celebration.
“On the road to a championship, it’s definitely about resilience and effort (more) than it is the coaches drawing up the perfect play,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “Our players stepped up, and this crowd really fueled that from the beginning.”
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808 twitter/donruiztnt