Arizona nearly ended the season the way it began. In late November, the Wildcats jumped out to a 19 point lead at Virginia only to see the Cavaliers tie the game in regulation then win it in overtime 93-90. Yesterday, Arizona raced to a 19 point halftime lead at Stanford before the Cardinal made their charge.
Stanford knotted the game 70-70 with six seconds to play on a three point basket by Kenny Brown.
Arizona's Mustafa Shakur took the ball the length of the court and found Daniel Dillon open along the baseline. Dillon's contested jump shot bounced off the rim and the Cardinal were jumping for joy as this game had evolved into yet another Arizona/Stanford classic.
In overtime Arizona took care of business this time around, eventually winning 85-80.
Six Stanford players were stricken with food poisoning days before the game. Anthony Goods was so sick the sophomore guard and his 13 PPG average were in street clothes at the end of the bench. His backcourt mate Mitch Johnson did not fare much better. Johnson played 13 minutes in the first half, but sat out the entire second half as he too did not feel well.
In basketball, like in life, one man's misfortune is another man's opportunity and Brown made the most of his opportunity against Arizona. Brown, averaging only seven minutes of playing time per game, played 33 minutes and scored 22 points on 9 of 15 shooting.
He made all four of his three pointers in the second half, three during one stretch where the Cardinal cut deep into Arizona's large lead and then the fourth in the game's closing seconds.
In the extended period the blessing in disguise for Arizona was having Chase Budinger foul out. Olson replaced Budinger with Dillon and Dillon did an outstanding job of denying Brown the ball.
The Wildcats rode the hot hand of Ivan Radenovic all day long. The senior forward scored a career high 37 points while making clutch shot after clutch shot down the stretch. His strong play wasn't just on the offensive end though. Radenovic finished with nine rebounds and seven assists. He mad all 11 of his free throw attempts and was 12 of 18 from the floor. In a word, Radenovic was unstoppable.
What's most impressive about Radenovic's play was that it was against one of the best low post defenders in the Pac-10, Brook Lopez. Lopez scored 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds of his own. In the end though it was a simple case of the more experienced senior taking the younger freshman to school with an array of post moves and head fakes that kept Lopez guessing at where Radenovic's release point would be.
For Arizona, the game was a microcosm of the entire season. They opened the game like a team who had to win. They played hard on both ends of the floor, moved the ball extremely well, took and made open shots and got after it on defense. They also controlled the boards and the basketball by not committing turnovers.
In the second half, Stanford came out hot and began to do the little things Arizona had done in the opening 20 minutes to build their lead. The Cardinal were getting offensive rebounds, coming up with lose balls, forcing Arizona into bad shots, getting steals and causing turnovers.
Arizona's three primary ball handlers, Shakur, Nice Wise and Marcus Williams combined for nine of the team's 13 turnovers. Shakur alone had six to go along with only four assists. Twice, Olson replaced Shakur with Wise after the senior point guard turned the ball over.
Instead of being discouraged, Shakur stepped up and played very well in the game's final 10 minutes, including the overtime session. Despite having two turnovers during this time, Shakur was very poised with the basketball and did a great job of getting Arizona into their offense.
Twice Shakur waived off teammates who were out of position and calmly directed them to where they needed to be so that Arizona could run plays through the red hot Radenovic. Shakur also knocked down a key jumper, made a crucial lay up, and knocked down 3 of 4 free throws in overtime.
Arizona, at one point this year, was being considered by most analysts as a team who could contend for the National title. Yesterday, they at times looked like that team. The Wildcats have now won three in a row and could use that momentum to springboard themselves to a deep conference tournament run.
They'll most likely face Oregon in the first round and will then probably draw UCLA in the second game. Things won't be easy in the Staples Center, but they won't be easy for any of the teams.
The Pac-10 is known as the Conference of Champions and this season all 10 teams played with the heart of champion. Saturday's games saw Arizona beat Stanford in overtime, Washington State beat USC in double overtime and Washington upset UCLA to close out their up and down season with a sweep of the Los Angeles schools.
No one had it easy this year. Not a single team. While Arizona's 11-7 conference record may seem substandard to the Wildcat faithful, I can assure you it's not. This season, every weekend was defined by buzzer beaters, overtimes, and huge late game defensive stands. In fact, the standings could be flip-flopped and we'd be none the wiser.
What it all means is every Pac-10 team that qualifies for the Big Dance is going to be one tough team to beat, and the higher their seed obviously the better.
Arizona's three straight wins over ASU, Cal and Stanford guaranteed the Wildcats a higher seed in the tournament then what was being projected a week ago. The only remaining question is will they continue to climb.
All eyes will be on the Staples Center this week for that answer.