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Cats Fall into 4-way Tie for First

Cats De-clawed by Huskies

By Lance Epstein

TUCSON, Ariz— The Wildcats (12-10, 6-4) fell into a four-way tie for first place in the Pac-10 and had their four game winning streak snapped after falling to the Washington Huskies 81-75 Thursday night.

Quincy Pondexter carried the Huskies on his shoulders with 30 points and 12 rebounds and his counter parts hit ten consecutive free throws down the stretch to defeat the relentless Wildcats. The Huskies improved their Pac-10 record to 5-5 and home recorded over the last two years to 33-2.

"He (Pondexter) did to us what Nic did to Cal,” Arizona Head Coach Sean Miller said. “That’s what those great seniors do. I thought he was fantastic. He was head and shoulders the best player in the game. We didn’t have an answer for him and a lot of teams who play Washington come up with the same problem. He’s a very very good player.”

From the opening tip, the game felt like an old-fashion New York Central Park defensive physical slugfest and the game did not disappoint. With a combined 27 ful calls in the first half. As well as Washington shooting 28.9 percent from the field in the first half and Arizona shot a slightly better 37.5 percent.

The frustration with the amount of fouls called by the officials and horrendous offensive boiled over for both head coaches, as they were both whistled for technical fouls with 7:53 remaining in the opening half.

Both starting backcourts struggled mightily against the pressure defense in the first half and could not get into a rhythm. Kyle Fogg and Nic Wise combined to shoot 1 of 11 for six points (Wise had zero).

The Huskies backcourt of Isaiah Thomas and Abdul Gaddy did not fair much better, combining to shooting 3 of 9 from the field for seven points. The poor performance by Thomas, forced him to bench for the start of the second half.

What was more perplexing then the terrible play by both backcourts is Arizona shot 60 percent from the free throw line and Washington shot an abysmal 47 percent. A surprise considering the Wildcats and Huskies are two of the best free throw shooting teams in the conference, both being over 70 percent as a team.

UA gained the momentum and silenced the Huskies crowd by finishing the half on a 13-2 run sparked by Brandon Lavender, who contributed three 3-pointers, to take the 37-31.

Head Coach Sean Miller and his young but talented Wildcats had confidence, swagger and a good feeling heading into the second half. Taking into consideration UA played probable Pac-10 freshman of the year, Derrick Williams five minutes due to picking up three fouls. Even worse, the trio of Jamelle Horne, Derrick Williams and Nic Wise who combine for 42 points per game, had only five points, yet they were still up six points (Wise did not score his first basket until the 19:08 mark of the second half).

Additionally, the Wildcats were receiving quality minutes from its bench, who outscored the Huskies 24-4 in the first half. Lamont “Momo” Jones became a pest on the defensive end of the floor causing poor shots by Washington’s Thomas and Gaddy.

Not only did he disturb the Huskies offense, he broke down their defense and scored eight points. Rarely used Lavender got into a groove as well and contributed a quick nine points. Furthermore, and to the amazement of Arizona fans, Alex Jacobson and Kyryl Natyazkho held their own and altered multiple Huskies shots inside the paint.

Nevertheless, these feelings would be short-lived for Arizona. Washington came out stifling on the defensive floor causing the Wildcats to be into poor shots and bad decision-making on the offensive end. The Huskies opened the half on a 17-4 run led by Washington’s balanced attack to take a 48-41 lead.

To make matters worse, UA’s William picked up his fourth foul 18 seconds into the second half, forcing Miller to sit his best inside player.

The youthful Cats could have folded in arguably the toughest arena in the Pac-10 but they kept battling. Momo led the Wildcats on a 6-0 run with a quick four points and a Jacobson basket to cut the Washington lead to one. Eventually Arizona tied the game up at 50 on Solomon Hill three-point play.

Then the star of the night, Pondexter carried the Huskies singlehandedly to a 13-5 run to take a 61-55 lead with 8:15 left. Pondexter dished to Scott Suggs for a three-pointer, he then followed it up with eight straight points that included a layup, a monstrous beak away dunk, two made free throws and another layup. The run was finally capped off the run with an assist to Justin Holiday.

Lost during the Pondexter show, Arizona’s Williams checked back into the game at 9:51 but fouled out of the game at 9:35. Washington extended its lead to 68-60 with just under six minutes left in the game.

"Derrick has been fantastic and he only played eight minutes, so it's hard for us to win when that happens," UA coach Sean Miller said.

With 2:09 left in the game, the Huskies felt like they had a comfortable 71-65 lead over Arizona but Wise, who finished the game 4-for-17, nailed a clutch three pointer to cut the lead to three. On Washington’s next possession with the shot clock winding down, Thomas missed a long three and Venoy Overton was called for push off foul against Fogg. In the double bonus, Fogg had a chance to cut the Husky lead to one.

Fogg, who is usually Mr. reliable at the line and 81 percent coming into the game made the first free throw but missed the second. In a scramble for the ball, seldom-used Jacobson retrieved the ball and dished it out to Wise. With a chance to tie the game at 71 with 1:06 on the clock, Wise missed a jumper. UA knew that that miss jumper was a big turning point in the outcome of the game.

"I wish I could have that possession back," Miller said. "That was the one time I thought we could seize control of the game."

Washington got the defensive rebound and Overton made two free throws to give make the score 73-69. On the following possession, Fogg made a layup to cut the lead in half and Wise followed with a quick foul on Overton with 30.4 left.

Overton continued his stellar performance at the line by sinking two more free throws to push the score to 75-71. Fogg showed his unrelenting attitude and aggressive play on the offensive end again by driving to the hoop and drawling the contact with 20.1 on the clock.

However, Fogg could only make the second free throw. The following in bounce play by Washington they threw a heave to Justin Holiday, who was fouled by Kevin Parrom on his fast-break dunk attempt.

Holiday followed in the footsteps of the rest of his teammates by hit the two free throws to extend the lead to 77-72. In spite of this, Arizona showed its resiliency and Fogg for the third consecutive possession assertively slashed to the hoop, and received an “and one” called on Thomas.

With the score 77-75 with 9.1 seconds left, Arizona quickly fouled Overton, who finished the game 9-of-10 from the line. Overton iced the game by calmly sinking the two free throws.

Overton and the Huskies hit ten consecutive free throws down the stretch to cap off the 81-75 victory.

“Washington has a style that, to me, really favors them at home,” Miller said. “They crash the offensive glass, they use their defense to create turnovers, and they just really attack the paint. They’re constantly putting pressure on the defense.”

Arizona surely lost the battle but Coach Miller and the Wildcats have numerous positives to take from the game. Before the start of the night, Lavender, Natyazkho and Jacobson were afterthoughts off the bench. After their play last tonight, the Wildcats can see the improvement of its only two players over 6’10 on the roster. Receiving quality minutes from these two big men can help possibly keep Williams from hitting a freshman wall.

Lavender proved that he could be a contributor off the bench. He has the ability to connect and find his stroke then Wildcats might be able to use him in the backcourt with Jones. Ultimately, keeping Wise’s minutes down and him fresh down the stretch.

“My confidence is not the issue at all,” Lavender said. “It’s just knowing my role and trying to execute it. I do what I can to help us win. My confidence is good. Whenever I’m open I feel like I can make any shot.

Another silver lining has been the maturation of Momo Jones over the last two games for the Wildcats faithful. Jones finished the game with team high 14 points and did not force the issue to get those points. More importantly, in the last two games Momo has wreaked havoc on opposing players and has taken pride in doing so.

“I come with that tough hard-nosed grind it out mentality,” Jones said. “That’s what I had tonight and that’s what I’ve had for the past five or six games but it’s not going to go away. That’s what everybody’s going to see from here on out.”

Momo might have been the most impressive player in a Wildcat uniform against the Huskies.

The most under the radar but encouraging positive that game out of this game might have been the play of Solomon Hill. Hill came off the bench and was assertive in grabbing seven boards and 12 points. Without Hill’s contribution, the Wildcats had no chance in this game. This is the type of game Wildcats fans have been yearning for since the highly touted Hill committed to the UA. Hopefully, for Arizona and their fans, they can look back at this game as the coming out party for Hill.

Maybe the most important thing the Wildcats and Miller can take from the loss is that this upstart, inexperienced group has aged, matured and has become a “team”. With their top three scorers going a combined 5-for-20 for only 17 points, the Cats gave the Huskies all they could handle in their own building. Hill said it best after the hard fought game.

"If this is earlier in the season, it's San Diego State or BYU," Hill said (Referring to the Wildcats being blown out and not playing as a team once getting down).

Earlier this season, Arizona would have been rattled and run out of Bank of America Arena with its tail between its legs. Most (realistic) Arizona fans would have chalked this game as a definite loss before the season started. Heck, UA fans have seen better Arizona teams go into Washington and not just lose, but also get demolished.

This tenacious and persistent squad almost beat the experienced defending Pac-10 champion. Miller agrees that earlier this year, this team my have given up and packed it in when times got rough, but the team is maturing.

“We could have lost by a thousand if you could score a thousand,” Miller said. “It shows our team’s improvement and shows we’ve got some guys who’ve gotten better. All that doesn’t add up to a whole lot because we lost but we’re trying to focus on getting better, we’re going to play our best basketball down the stretch.”

In a short four months, Sean Miller has transformed a bunch of freshmen into fearless competitors. Last night, on the road in a hostile environment (might be the hardest road game left on the slate) a group of young Wildcats reflected their coach’s tough-mindedness and might have finally arrived.

A loss is a loss, but it is almost a guarantee that Romar and the Huskies are hoping they do not run into this up and coming team in the PAC-10 tournament. It took foul trouble to Williams, an off night for Wise and the game in their backyard to barely squeak out a win.

Other Notes

The University of Arizona Athletic Department has placed the Men’s basketball team on probation. Stated in a letter to the NCAA yesterday, the basketball team will lose one scholarship in 2011-2012. However, the Wildcats will not lose a chance at participating in any postseason tournament.

This probation stems from Lute Olson sending out a letter in 2008, which was in support of the Cactus Classic youth basketball Tournament.

The self-inflicted probation will start with 2010-11 basketball season and continue to the end of the 2011-12 season. Arizona will have reduced number of coaches that can recruit this upcoming summer, the number of days coaches are can recruit and the number of official recruiting visits has also been reduced.

The NCAA will have a meeting on April 16-18 in Indianapolis to reject or accept Arizona’s decision.

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