The players sensed it. The fans sensed it. The coaches knew it.
For Lute Olson, the game was so critical he shed his necktie at halftime and came out of the locker room looking like a coach 30 years to his younger; a coach who perhaps was seeking the first marquee win of his career.
For Arizona, they entered the game on a modest two game win streak, getting victories over Washington and Oregon State. For Oregon, they entered the game victors over last place Arizona State. Still, a modest two game skid to UCLA and USC the week prior was fresh in their minds.
I say modest because neither streak was impressive or disappointing. In fact, if one's been following the ebb and flow of the conference this season, the wins and losses for each program were pretty much expected.
While Oregon was perceived as the darlings of the Pac-10 in the first half of conference play, Arizona joined Washington in playing the role of the ugly ducklings. Both had underachieved. Both were losing the support of the national media. Despite the consecutive road losses, Oregon was still ranked 15th in the nation. Arizona, on the other hand, was on the outside looking into the ESPN/USA Today poll and was clinging to a number 24 ranking in the AP poll.
The only thing going for Arizona, it seemed, was there lofty computer numbers (RPI #7, SOS #1) but even those were beginning to be called into question. The blowout loss to North Carolina did little to improve public opinion. Having not beaten a ranked team since 20 December against Memphis was also wearing on many minds.
The losses were mounting. The poor play was frustrating. The defense, at times, was anemic. The offense, at other times, was non-existent. It all added up to five losses in conference, seven overall.
Then Saturday arrived. In my opinion, the final score would mean more than one team winning and one team losing. For me, the fate of Arizona was in the balance.
If Arizona were to lose, they would then face the prospect of again not being able to beat a quality opponent. It would be their seventh loss to a team as good or better then them this season. That is not something that impresses fans and more importantly, selection committees. What's worse is they would then have to head into this week not only knowing that they again failed to beat a quality team but also knowing that they would be playing two ranked opponents, USC and UCLA.
They would probably also begin to realize that all their pre and post game chatter about how good they are and how they can't believe they're not winning and how everything will get fixed in soon time would have officially become lip service.
With all this on the line, and both Arizona and Oregon coming off very ho hum performances on Thursday night (Arizona beat Oregon State 72-66 and Oregon beat Arizona State 55-51), the referee tossed the ball toward the sky at 12:43 PM, PST and for a split second, the fate of these two teams was suspended in air.
The Wildcats, fueled by a 9-0 run, jumped out to an early 13-6 lead. Oregon then responded scoring eight straight to grab the lead 14-13. Oregon soon settled into a rhythm and slowly began to build a lead. With less than a minute to play the lead was 36-26. The teams would head into the locker room scoring one more bucket apiece, giving the Ducks a 38-28 advantage.
Chase Budinger scored the first five points of the second half to bring the Wildcats to within 38-33. Arizona would eventually use a 10-2 run in the opening minutes to trim the Ducks lead to 40-38.
Like in the first half, Oregon would again respond. The Ducks scored seven in a row to retake a nine point lead. The teams would see-saw back and forth the rest of the way.
With 12 minutes to go, Arizona trailed 52-51. With eight minutes to play, Oregon used yet another 8-2 run to extend their lead to 64-55. With 3:45 on the clock, Arizona had finally caught the Ducks at 66.
Minutes later, Budinger followed a Marcus Williams lay up with a three from the corner pocket and the Wildcats led 73-66, capping an 18-2 run. For a team whose heart had been called into question, their hearts were now larger than life.
For me, sitting on my sofa, taking notes on the game as I always do, the adrenaline was pumping through my veins so intensely that I could hardly put pen to paper.
I wasn't jumping around and screaming, or yelling, or pacing the room. In fact, I've never been so calm. The adrenaline was more from the magnitude of the moment – the knowing that Arizona absolutely had to win this game. The knowing that Arizona had put themselves in this position four times prior to this game and had lost all four contests. The knowing that this time, this game, had to go our way.
The adrenaline was also due in part because Oregon, a team who was in first place in the Pac-10 just a week ago, wasn't about to quit down by just seven points with 1:55 to go.
The Ducks scored the next five points to cut the Wildcats lead to 73-71 with 57 seconds left. Arizona failed to score on the ensuing possession. Oregon then rushed up the court. They swung the ball around the perimeter, Arizona rushed to double the wrong player, and Oregon eventually found a wide open Tajuan Porter who buried the go-ahead three-pointer with 27 seconds remaining.
The first thing I noticed during the immediate stoppage of action was that not a single Arizona player had hung their heads. In fact, I swear that Budinger pulled back his shoulders and stuck out his chest walking toward the sideline. He wasn't being cocky. He was being confident. After all, the freshman forward had already scored 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
During the timeout Ivan Radenovic called for the ball and Olson assured the team that no matter who took the shot, it was going to fall.
Sitting on my sofa, hands shaking from the rush, I too knew that the shot would fall.
No matter who took it, the shot was going to fall. It was Arizona's turn.
The team was patient and worked the ball into the post. Radenovic, who had owned Maarty Luenen in the game's final 10 minutes, took a turnaround jumper with six seconds left and just like Coach O said it would, the ball swished through the net.
Oregon's last ditch effort was nullified when Brooks charged into Mustafa Shakur. Budinger would then get fouled and make two free throws, giving him 30 points for the game.
The final score was 77-74. The game was over but more importantly, Arizona's season was not.