Will Bynum's missed three-pointer as time ran out in overtime served as a microcosm of the entire day for Arizona. The Wildcats couldn't get the ball into the hands of the guy it wanted for most of the afternoon and because of that fact, Arizona fell to the Connecticut Huskies 100-98 in overtime.
"It was a very good, competitive game," UA coach Lute Olson said. "Both teams played very hard, but they were more physical than we were."
Chances were that Olson designed the final shot for either Jason Gardner (30 points for the game) or Salim Stoudamire (20 points on 6-9 three-pointers). And if not those two then certainly Luke Walton, who once again was brilliant all-around (18 points, seven rebounds, eight assists and four steals while clearly outplaying UConn's more heralded Caron Butler). However, when the offense broke down, Gardner had no choice but to find the 5-foot-9 Bynum, alone in the corner for the game's biggest shot, not to mention the biggest shot Bynum has taken in his life.
Yet, when it came down to it, Connecticut defeated Arizona for the third consecutive year because it forced the Wildcats to do things they didn't want to do for the majority of the game.
From the outset it was apparent that Connecticut's talented freshman duo of 6-9 forward Emeka Okafor and guard Ben Gordon were going to be major factors in deciding the outcome of the game. Okafor was as dominant down low as any player in recent memory at McKale Center.
"I think Okafor was the difference in the game," Olson said. "Every time we got an opportunity to get to the basket he was there. They were difficult to score on inside and if we did penetrate Okafor was putting balls back at us, and that changed the total complexion of the game, and he was the most effective player on the court."
The freshman from Houston had 19 points, 14 rebounds and AT LEAST 12 blocks, although CBS had him for only nine swats. The normally automatic Channing Frye and Luke Walton (when underneath the hoop) had numerous shots rejected by Okafor and couldn't get the easy baskets that Arizona is so used to getting out of its offense.
Gordon made the match-up against Jason Gardner somewhat of a personal test for himself. He scored 11 points in the first half on great outside shooting and a nice mid-range game, but it was at the end where he flourished the most.
Trailing 97-91 after consecutive three-pointers by Salim Stoudamire to start the overtime period, the Huskies looked to their freshman phenom from Mount Vernon, NY for an answer. He provided it with a huge three from the right wing. Including Gordon's three, Connecticut outscored the young Wildcats 9-1 to end (and win) the game.
Other than the fact that Arizona's defense is still, uh, "not good", the Wildcats actually played quite well considering the fact that this game wasn't anywhere near a "must win" for the team. One would like to think that after consecutive losses for the first time this season that these resilient Wildcats will bounce back when they travel to the Bay Area for games against Stanford and Cal next weekend. There were good signs everywhere today (except defensively, of course).
For starters, Jason Gardner seems to have regained his shooting stroke after missing it for the better part of a month. He hit five clutch three-pointers while leading Arizona back from an early 12-point deficit against the Huskies. His 30 points led all scorers and he clearly outplayed Husky point guard Taliek Brown, who probably played the best game of his entire life.
Salim Stoudamire is foreshadowing an All-American career at Arizona with games like he had today. Even though he saw his school-record 39 consecutive free throw streak come to an end, the freshman from Lake Oswego, Oregon did manage to connect on six of his nine three-point attempts while also playing solid defense against the 6-8 Butler on the wing most of the game. At this rate, cousin Damon might be the lesser-known Stoudamire in the family in a few years.
Walton was again brilliant with the ball in his hands. Once again he approached a triple-double but he did have some early turnover problems and couldn't score the way he normally does against the long arms of Okafor underneath. However, worrying about Walton performing well is like fretting over whether or not the sun is going to rise tomorrow-it's just a given.
Channing Frye rebounded big time from his poor outing at ASU on Wednesday night and came through with 17 points and nine rebounds. Even though he was overshadowed by Okafor's tremendous game, Frye proved once again that he will be a force in the nation for many years to come with his rapid improvement pattern.
Then there was Bynum. Sure he missed the shot that would have won the game, but this writer applauds the freshman for having the courage to take the shot with the game on the line. He will learn from that miss more than he will from ten games worth of normal play. The usually shaky Bynum also racked up an impressive seven assists, which is his career-high, and played solid defense on the perimeter the majority of the time.
So, as you can see, all is not lost in this loss to an extremely impressive Connecticut team. Arizona played well, Connecticut just played better. It was a fabulous game and here is one guy who thinks that the Wildcats will take more out of this close defeat than it has in all those wonderful comeback wins they've had in recent weeks.
In 1997, right before the start of the most magical run in Arizona history, the Wildcats lost two heartbreaking games to Stanford and Cal by a total of three points. Coach Olson didn't seem upset in the least after those games, instead saying that he felt his team was playing its best basketball of the season. Six games later, Arizona was the National Champion of college basketball.
After playing so well against this outstanding Husky team, it would be hard to believe that Olson could have too much to complain about.
Both of these teams will be heard from in March.
With very loud voices.