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Cats Cash In at Buzzer

Late Night Banking

By Lance Epstein

TUCSON, Ariz.—In a series that has been no stranger to fantastic finishes, it comes as no surprise that the ever-confident Lamont Momo Jones banked a 15-footer at the buzzer to cap off a 16-6 Arizona run and shock the Cardinals.

"Just give me the ball and get out of the way," Jones said. "I like the pressure. I've always thrived under pressure. It's a great feeling to win with big-time shots. Every player wants to have that feeling.”

In the last 22 meetings between the Stanford Cardinals and Arizona Wildcats, 17 games have been settled by 10 points or less. Last night in Palo Alto would be no different as the two teams squared off.

However, the bigger bombshell for Wildcat faithful is that upper classmen, Nic Wise and Jamelle Horne, found themselves on the bench in a tie ball game with 30 seconds left.

With 30.3 seconds left on the clock, Arizona Head Coach Sean Miller sent out a lineup consisting of three freshman and two sophomores. Everyone in the arena and watching at home on T.V. were in shock to see Wise sitting on the bench. The team’s lone senior, leader and a knack for the dramatics sat on the bench watching his teammates.

"It wasn't a gamble," Miller said of the lineup. "They deserved to play. To me, that's the job you have as a coach, to play the players based on performance, not on what's happened in the past. I thought MoMo and Derrick, both guys, have been getting better and better."

Just after Stanford’s star forward Landry Fields nailed a clutch three pointer right in the face of Brandon Lavender to extend the Cardinal lead to four; freshman forward Derrick Williams attempted to create his own shot when Fields was called for the foul. Williams was at the line for two high-pressured free throws and with the Cats down 69-68. His first shot rolled off the cylinder.

"After that first one, I just wanted to concentrate and get that second one," Williams said. "Then if they missed a shot we'd go to overtime."

With even more pressure on his young shoulders to make the second free throw, Williams concentrated and connected to tie the game at 69. Then Stanford ran their offense to perfection, as three Wildcat defenders collapsed on Fields. Fields dished to teammate Jack Trotter, who was open under the basket as Williams came out to stop Fields penetration.

Trotter went up for what he thought would be an uncontested jam, but Williams, out of nowhere, made a game-saving block. The ball deflected off the backboard and right into the hands of Brandon Lavender with 6.2 seconds remaining.

Lavender without delay fired a pass to the soon-to-be heroic freshman guard Jones, who pulled up just within the three-point line. Jones released and fell to the ground as his shot banked home an Arizona victory. Once the ball went through the hoop, the exuberant bench ran onto the Maples Pavilion floor and mobbed the talented freshman as the Wildcats ended their three-game losing streak.

"When I was younger, my dad taught me that shot," Jones said of the game-winning bank shot. "He said, 'This is going to be a key to the NBA. Not a lot of players can shoot that shot.' We practiced it and practiced it and tonight my dad was with me."

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the dramatic win only puts them back at 14-14 and 8-8 in the conference. The win might only positions them at .500 in the conference, but more significantly the triumph guarantees that Arizona will not have to participate in the play-in game of the Pac-10 tourney.

The reason is because USC’s probation enables them from partake in post-season play. This cuts the tournament down to only nine teams. Also, since Arizona swept both Oregon and Stanford (7-10 in the Pac-10 and only one game remaining) the worst-case scenario (Arizona is swept next week by USC and UCLA) is that UA would place 7th. What seems like a long shot for the Cats just to win three consecutive games would seem even longer if they had to win four.

What might be more important coming from the win last night is that the Wildcats have fully pledged to the youth movement and may have found their lineup heading into next year. While Wise has been a trooper for the Wildcats program, staying with the program for all four years and a different coach each year, the stage was set on Saturday night for the next chapter of Arizona basketball.

The dynamic freshman duo of Williams and Jones combined to score 40 of the 71 Arizona’s points (24 and 16 respectively). Additionally, Jones did not commit a single turnover in 25 minutes of play and while running the offense from the point guard position.

"One thing I’d say about MoMo -- he’s improved," Miller said. "That’s really what you want to see with young players, freshmen, when you look back in November and December, and the beginning of the Pac-10 season, now you look at them as we’re moving towards March.

"In his case, it's his decision-making shooting percentage, being a better defender, understanding what college basketball is all about. He’s just improved in a very steady way.”

Further proof that the transition from the old regime to the new Miller era is in full effect was coach Miller pulling the right strings and getting a majority of Arizona’s contributions from his sophomores and freshman. The underclassman collectively united for 83 percent of Arizona’s total offense.

“You have to play the players that are performing, the players who are playing the best together and mostly you have to play the players who are giving fantastic effort," " UA coach Sean Miller said. "Right now we’re fighting through a lot of things and this trip has been good for me because it’s really given me a clear indication on a lot of levels. We’re rebuilding, we’re moving through our first season but I’m really proud of our team and of some of the young players we have tonight."

It was an exceptionally bold move by Miller, but watching the game he was absolutely correct to bench Wise and Horne. Every time the Wildcats would get close, Wise turned the ball over or caused a bad shot. With 1:15 left and Arizona down 69-68 with the chance to take a lead, Wise’s inability to run a offense contributed to Jones chucking a 38-foot three pointer.

Being a senior, Wise knows the importance of ball security, clock management and running an effective offense. Once Momo seized the reigns of the offense, the team transformed and became productive unit.

In the same light, Horne’s up and down season continued. Constantly throughout this season, the fans and the media have heard Miller trying to ignite a fire under talented but wildly inconsistent Horne.

Watching Horne’s body language as the rest of the cheerful Cats left the floor was very disconcerting. Instead of being delighted for the team victory, Horne appeared as if they had just lost at the buzzer.

Normally a coach will decide to bench a player in hopes to send a message, which will spark a fire under the player. But in this situation, the impression is Miller’s coaching backfired. Clearly, Horne appeared to be visibly shaken by not being on the floor with the game on the line and his confidence shattered.

With all that said, it might be best if Horne’s minutes decrease. Freshmen Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom could use the game experience. The extra minutes will only benefit their development and learning curve.

Regardless of who is on the floor for Arizona, improving and progressing is the name of the game from here on out. Although, the Wildcats are glad to walk away with the “W,” improvements and adjustments are a must if they expect to win the Pac-10 tournament.

UA cannot consistently rely on teams to shoot 55.6 percent from the free throw line like Stanford shot. Furthermore, they cannot anticipate winning games with teams shooting 46 percent from the field. Of course getting defensive guru Parrom back from his nagging foot injury will help the cause.

Nevertheless, Arizona’s late night deposit in Palo Alto might have permitted them to cash in on some needed momentum for an improvable Pac-10 tourney run.

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