Arizona overcoming the 9th-ranked UCLA Bruins' 73-53 lead with 13:35 remaining in the game (winning by TEN, no less) was the biggest second half comeback in Arizona history and most definitely the loudest game of all-time too.
"Ear-splitting" comes to mind when trying to describe the McKale Center crowd's decibel level as the Wildcats clawed back point by point. The noise built and built as multiple Arizona players made plays, scored baskets and drew charges before finally hitting a mind-numbing crescendo on Jason Gardner's three-pointer with 9:43 left. Before that shot, UCLA had led by 20 and after that shot, Arizona was up 76-75.
I thought the 18-0 first half run against USC was big but this afternoon Arizona put up an even bigger run by going on a 27-2 spurt that covered over five minutes of actual game time. In fact, maybe that shouldn't even be called a "run". That was a full-length Athens to Sparta Marathon.
When it was all said and done, Arizona played what was perhaps the most exciting, riveting, gut-wrenching game in the 98-year existence of the basketball program and it was capped off with the rarest of happenings at McKale Center: the students bull-rushing the court as the final buzzer sounded. Final score: Arizona 96-86.
"I was out there in the middle of the court listening to the fans chant my name," Gardner said. "It was a VERY enjoyable game."
With Arizona holding a precarious 87-86 lead late in the game, one of the most exciting plays of the game took place and the Wildcats used that momentum to close the Bruins out and secure the win.
It started the play before when freshman Will Bynum stripped the ball from a UCLA player and found Luke Walton for a wide open three-pointer, which Walton missed. However, instead of letting the miss get them down, Arizona (and Salim Stoudamire in particular) got tougher. Stoudamire stole the ball the very next play, found a streaking Gardner all alone under the basket. Gardner took the long pass from Stoudamire, underhanded a pass back to Channing Frye who was trailing on the play for a thunderous two-handed dunk while drawing a foul. After that it was so long Bruins.
"Oh my god!" Frye said, still out of breath in the locker room after the game. "After that dunk I was shaking so bad. I didn't think I was going to make that free throw."
But of course he did make that free throw. When it's Arizona basketball inside McKale Center, it is probably wise to expect the impossible to happen for the Wildcats. I doubt anyone outside of the Arizona locker room legitimately thought the final outcome would be what it was, but now we should know better than to doubt Lute Olson and his staff.
You want a microcosm of the Wildcats under Olson in McKale? This was it. Hell, this whole weekend was it. The atmosphere and the intensity were at all-time high-water marks and regardless of what some media will have you believe, it is McKale that is the sonic capital of the Pac-10, not Oregon's pint-sized Mac Court.
"This is a tough, tough place to win," UCLA head coach Steve Lavin said. "It's one of the toughest places to play in all of college basketball."
You almost have to feel for Lavin. He was watching the game of his coaching career unfold before his eyes in the first half when his talent-rich team made an unbelievable 11 threes en route to a 58-43 halftime lead. However, the game was at McKale and the team was Arizona and the combination of those factors usually means bad things for opposing teams.
"I watched the tape from the Oregon State game where Arizona was down by 21," Lavin said. "They are capable of coming back. I really like Arizona's team. They have a lot of talented young players and they have great leaders in Gardner and Luke Walton."
The McKale mystique was not lost on the Bruin players either.
"We need to teach our younger guys that this is the loudest place in the country," UCLA forward Matt Barnes said. "It was a great atmosphere and homecourt advantage. I really enjoyed being out there."
The player who probably had the best time on the court today had to be Gardner. After hitting yet another one of his clutch threes to give Arizona the lead, UCLA called a timeout to stifle the momentum. As both teams cleared the floor, Gardner remained standing on mid-court and started yelling towards the Bruin bench, "This is MY house! This is OUR house!"
And that pretty much says it all.
What a weekend and what a game.