Arizona vs. California: The Pac-12 Is Still Anyone’s GamePosted by mlemaire on February 3rd, 2012
On February 5, 2011, then-Findlay Prep star Nick Johnson tuned in from Nevada to watch his future team, Arizona, travel to Berkeley to face off against California. What he witnessed was a wild, back-and-forth, triple-overtime game that Arizona eventually won, 107-105. So Thursday, when the now-freshman starter Johnson and his teammates headed to Berkeley for the rematch, he was ready. Johnson scored 11 points and dished out five assists, and senior Kyle Fogg played what coach Sean Miller called “his best game since I have been at Arizona,” and the Wildcats held off a furious rally by late to win, 78-74, proving that there are still at least seven teams who have legitimate chances at winning the conference title.
“I was telling the guys, I watched the game last year,” Johnson said. “So I knew it was going to be crazy, and I prepared for that.” Despite Johnson’s claims, it didn’t look like he or his teammates were prepared for the start of the game as they let the Bears jump out to an early 22-9 lead, looking lost on offense and uninspired on defense. But then, with Haas Pavilion rocking and their team looking to deliver an early knockout blow to an inexperienced opponent, Arizona methodically climbed back into the game and then Fogg took over. In the last 10 minutes of the first-half, Fogg had 10 points, two assists, two steals, and a rebound as Arizona stormed back (with the help of some generous whistles) to take a 45-34 lead at the half.
“Coming in, I just wanted to be aggressive,” Fogg said. “I have been working on my shot before and after practice and last Saturday against Washington I just felt like I wasn’t there for my team and tonight I wanted to change that.” But, Arizona is a young team. And with Kevin Parrom unavailable and sophomore Jordin Mayes out for at least the game when he reinjured his left foot, their inexperienced lineup allowed Cal to slowly creep back into the game. But with the score tied at 72 and a little more than a minute left, Fogg buried one last three-pointer and Johnson came out of nowhere to block a layup that would have brought the Bears to within one and finally, the Wildcats were the victors in a seesaw conference battle.
For Mike Montgomery, this game had to be disappointing. His team had previously been undefeated in its home gym, and they blew a golden opportunity to keep pace with Washington atop the conference standings and put some distance between them and a rival. As for their opponents, Miller and his players all admitted that it was nice to finally be on the right side of a close game, but Miller also saw enough mistakes to understand his team is still working out the kinks. “We made the same plays we have been making,” Miller said. “We missed a lot of free-throws to end the game and usually when you miss that many it’s tough to win. But we have been in a number of close games and math alone says that one of them is going to bounce your way.”
Our parent-site tweeted it best after the game, last night was one-part endorsement and one-part indictment for the conference as a whole. There were prolonged runs from both teams, barbs traded and fingers pointed between Arizona assistant Joe Pasternack and Bears’ star Jorge Gutierrez, and an exciting finish. But there were also defensive lapses, missed free-throws, and stupid turnovers. The game was entertaining to watch, but it only furthered proved the impending reality that the Pac-12 will be lucky if they get two NCAA Tournament bids with how many chances teams have blown.
You can look at it two ways. On one hand, the conference hasn’t been this weak in years, and adding Colorado and Utah — albeit for football reasons — hasn’t been very much help at all. But on the other hand, as we come down the stretch, every single conference game is going to be filled with implications and intrigue. And that is before we even talk about how interesting the conference tournament will be with the league’s automatic bid up for grabs and practically every team capable of stealing it.