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Cats Meow: Tied For First in Pac

By Lance Epstein

TUCSON, Ariz.- Hard to imagine any team being dealt a 30-point blowout loss at home to BYU a month ago, would be sitting pretty on top of the Pac-10 standings. After Arizona’s 76-72 victory over the California Golden Bears, that’s where Arizona is situated under first year basketball Coach Sean Miller.

In a game that included 15 lead changes and 14 ties, it took a career high 30 points from senior point guard, Nic Wise and his freshman counter part, Derrick Williams who chipped in 15 points and 11 points to save the day for the Wildcats.

California took the early lead at 19-12 and the inexperience of the Wildcats, five freshman playing significant minutes, could have shown but they kept battling back.

Four or six weeks ago, there was no way we would have won this game today,” Miller said. “When Cal built their lead in the first half, I knew that a team from a few weeks ago would have had a lot more trouble coming back than our team today.”

Arizona looked poised to go into half time with a lead and control of the game. Then California’s Theo Robertson, on route to his career high 27 points, lead the Bears on a 6-0 run to end the half and giving the Bears a 34-32 halftime lead.

With just under 3:00 minutes left in the game, Cal led 69-65. The Wildcats then relied on Wise, who hit two free throws and moments later a Williams dunk tied the game up at 69 with a 1:20 left.

Then Arizona’s picked up defensive intensity as Jamelle Horne blocked Robertson’s shot, and in transition lead to a layup by Wise giving UA a 71-69 lead.

Arizona’s lead would evaporate when senior California point guard, Jerome Randel was fouled on a three-point attempt, which sent the Arizona faithful up in arms over the questionable call.

"He jumped forward on his shot so I did draw a little contact," Wise said. "But it was created by him.”

Randel made all three free throws to give California a 72-71 lead. Again, the young Wildcats looked to their floor general Wise, to save the day and he did not fail by scoring 7 of the last 9 points of the game.

With 26 seconds left, the battle between arguably the Pac-10’s best two point guards took center stage. Wise drove to the basket on Randel, connected on the layup and was fouled.

“It was just taking what they gave me,” Wise said. “We ran a ball screen and then a re-screen, and it was just seeing what opened up. Had they collapsed on me, I would have kicked it out."

Wise made the free throw to give the UA a 74-72 lead. Again, Arizona stepped up its defensive resolve, creating a turnover as Robertson lost the ball while driving to the hoop with 11 seconds left.

Wise then matched his career high 30 points by sinking the two clutch free throws that sealed the 76-72 win for the Wildcats.

"It feels wonderful,” Miller said. “One of the major things we are consistent about in our dialogue is that we constantly talk about improving.

“We've got numerous, young players, and only a few veterans, and we knew it was going to take some time to learn all the changes we made this season. Something that has really helped us is that we are a lot better at practice. We move easier, and move faster, and it has translated into our games.”

Miller can also be proud that his young Arizona team held Randel to just 1 of 8 the three-point line (last year he clinched Cal’s 83-77 win at Mckale with late three pointer) and California as a team just below 38 percent from the field.

“In the locker room, we didn't really talk a lot about playing for first. Win or lose, we wanted to play with a high level of effort, and we did. If we can continue this, then no matter the consequence through the rest of the season, good things will happen for us."

Freshman guard Lamont “Momo” Jones, who added 10 points off the bench and a handful of defensive plays, and Wise know that this one victory doesn’t mean anything if the team does not remain focused going on the road in Washington next week.

"We'll enjoy this today and then it's back to business… Once we can say we're No. 1 in the Pac-10 and the season is over, then we can have fun and say we had a great season. But right now it doesn't really mean anything,” Jones said.

"We already talked about it in the locker room," Wise said. "The season's not over yet. There's still the second half of the season left to go and anything can happen."

Arizona’s brutal strength of schedule, which ranks in the top 10 nationally and might be enough to get an at large NCAA bid. However, their mediocre record of only 12-9 (6-3 in Pac-10) might not. Analysts are predicting that the Pac-10 will only get one NCAA tournament berth that being the team that wins the PAC-10 Tournament.

After the big win, Miller did not want to comment on the current “streak” of 25 straight NCAA tournament appearances for Arizona but discussed the edge their strength of schedule.

I will talk a lot about our schedule, because one thing that we get the dividends (from) is … so many good teams we've played have really toughened our team for the Pac-10.”

Arizona’s toughness has been on display during their four-game winning streak, but now they have a new task at hand, learning they will take everyone’s best shot from now on. Especially facing a Huskies team next week, which lost by 17 in McKale earlier this year.

Other Arizona Wildcats Notes

On Monday, Arizona received verbal commitment from 6’1, 170 pound Westchester (Los Angeles) combo guard Jordin Mayes. Mayes is a 3 star recruit according to rivals.com and scouts.com. Mayes has a very high IQ and “heady” point guard with an excellent feel for the game. Arizona now has two players for the 2010 class: Jordan Mayes and Daniel Bejarano. Arizona would still like to add another player to the class of 2010. Last week, Kadeem Jack, a 6’9 power forward out of New York visited Arizona. He along with five-star guards Josh Selby and Doron Lamb are the favorites for that scholarship.

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