Night Line: Cardiac Cats Continue To Find A WayPosted by BHayes on January 4th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
March may still be well in the distance and conference play just beginning, but the Arizona Wildcats have already crafted a season’s worth of last-minute escapes. Early December saw Mark Lyons take over a game that was tied with seven minutes to play at Clemson. The Xavier transfer would provide more heroics a week later, as his runner with seven seconds left shocked Florida and erased a six-point, final-minute deficit. Then, in a back-and-forth Christmas Day affair, Nick Johnson delivered Wildcat fans a final Christmas gift when he blocked Chase Tapley’s layup attempt with only ticks remaining, giving Arizona the Diamond Head Classic title in yet another wild final minute.
But none of this drama compared to the scene at the McHale Center on Thursday night. Not only did Arizona need to erase a nine-point deficit in the final two minutes to ultimately win this one, but they also needed to find a bit of good fortune when referees went to the monitor to review Sabatino Chen’s apparent buzzer-beating winner. True to form, the Wildcats ended up on the right side of the bang-bang call, and then (in equally appropriate fashion), Lyons and company displayed the killer instinct that has become a trademark of this unbeaten run.
As is usually the case with teams using “imaginative” methods of winning, skeptics will point out that relying on late heroics is not a recipe for sustainability. On the other side of the ledger, Wildcat fans will rightly point out that their team is 13-0 and one of just four unbeaten teams left in the country, so they have to be doing something right. The question then becomes, how good is this Arizona team? The answer, also per usual, falls somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. Ultimately however, this is a talented, veteran Wildcat team, and the dramatic nature of their first 13 games should not be held against them.
It needs to be noted that the Cats are pulling out these wins against good, and often great, teams. Florida, San Diego State and Colorado are all very capable; even if Arizona had dropped a game or two in there, those losses would still be definitively respectable. If they continue to scrape by against the bottom of Pac-12 in conference play, then close wins might start becoming an issue, but the schedule to this point has been solid.
However, the more important takeaway from their close wins is the evolution of the Arizona identity. The addition of Mark Lyons was heavily scrutinized in the offseason, as many wondered if he was capable of filling the dual roles of point guard and leader. He hasn’t been a pure point guard to this point and likely never will be, but his swagger means as much to Arizona as anything. He wants the ball in his hands down the stretch and has made plays of every kind in key moments, from clutch free throws to gritty drives to contested three-pointers. There can be no denying that he has been the catalyst for these late comebacks, but the two other Wildcat seniors have also played key roles. Solomon Hill might well be the front-runner for Pac-12 player of the year, and Kevin Parrom, a kid who has been through as much trauma as any college senior in the country, has chipped in with key hoops late in games.
Fitting that on this night, all 12 Arizona points in overtime were scored by upperclassmen. The talented freshman trio of bigs (Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett) have all proven capable while sophomore Nick Johnson provides a necessary explosive element, but this Arizona team will go as far as their seniors can carry them. Close wins have been the norm thus far in Tucson, but at their core those wins have been as much a reflection of a newly found mental toughness as they have been pure luck. Arizona would be well-served to find a few comfortable wins during the Pac-12 season, but there is one thing we do know – if the Cats need to make a play or two late, they will have plenty of experience to draw upon.