Two seconds and three points. An entire basketball season for the Arizona Wildcats came down to those tiny numbers yesterday as Ohio State used a three-point shot with two ticks left on the clock to officially end the Cats’ run through the NCAA Tournament.
Sean Miller, the Arizona head coach, expressed his pride in the team’s effort after the game. “We tried hard,” he said, “and losing in this tournament when you play hard to the end hurts more in the beginning, but I think you leave with a lot of pride knowing you played your heart out.”
Miller also leaves Los Angeles with his second Sweet 16 appearance in four years at the helm of the tradition-rich program that was built by Hall of Fame coach, Lute Olson. This trip through the tourney validates a revival of that consistency on the national level that Olson brought to the program.
Now the school’s athletic director, Greg Byrne, will have to solidify his hold on the 45-year-old head coach who is fast becoming one of the hottest young coaches in the country and a target for every major college program needing top talent. To that end, Byrne has arranged for a one-year extension to Miller’s contract to keep him working the sidelines through the 2016-17 season.
Despite falling short of the Elite Eight this year, something he accomplished two years ago, Miller’s squad managed to quiet those critics who didn’t consider Arizona a strong post-season contender this season, despite piling up 25 wins before getting an invitation to the Big Dance.
There were plenty who figured the No. 6-seeded Cats (27-8) might even get knocked out in the first round. Wins over Belmont and Harvard, which upset the heavily-favored No. 3-seed New Mexico, and then taking No. 2 seed Ohio State to the wire earned the Cats some much-deserved respect.
Their last hurrah yesterday let the only Arizona team entered in the tourney ride back off into the sunset with their heads held high. They rocked the Buckeyes – a top-10 team that beat Indiana, Michigan State, and Wisconsin in the regular season – by storming to an early 11-point lead and keeping the Big Ten power on its heels throughout the first half.
But the momentum from a 14-7 run to close the first half, combined with a slow Arizona start to the second half, enabled the Buckeyes to get back into the driver’s seat and mount a lead of their own at 53-43 with 11 minutes to play.
It was neck-and-neck going down the final stretch, with Arizona mounting a late charge and threatening an overtime period when Mark Lyons scored and converted a free throw with 21.8 second left to tie the game at 70-70. But that was about 20 seconds too much to leave for the Buckeyes, and LaQuinton Ross made them pay with a three-pointer to ice the 73-70 win. The Cats were unable to get a shot off in the closing seconds and OSU claimed its 11th straight victory.
Lyons, the senior point guard who transferred in from Xavier for his final year of eligibility, led the Wildcats’ scoring with 23 points. He came into the game averaging 25 points during the first two games of the tournament and has spelled the difference this year for the Cats.
It was also the final game of an outstanding college career for the 6’7″ forward from California, Solomon Hill, who went out on a high note. He scored 16 points for the Cats, including nine straight to help his teammates climb back in the game in the second half when OSU had stretched its lead to 10 points.
Lyons and Hill are done. But Miller gets another chance to try to take the Cats even deeper into next year’s tournament.
This year’s recruiting class had been ranked by many analysts as the top class in the country, so Miller has the talent to get the job done. There may even be a Final Four appearance in the wings as these youngsters mature.
But if Miller does get to the rarified air of the Final Four before his contract runs out, his phone will ring louder and longer. And his AD will have to find more incentives to keep his head coach happy enough to stay in Tucson.
However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just ask Minnesota, which just fired Tubby Smith, or UCLA, which let Ben Howland go after his tournament exit.
Actually, that’s probably two more schools looking for Miller’s phone number right now.
(Photo: Ohio State Athletics)