Wildcats rally to stun No. 5 Florida
Senior Mark Lyons’ game-winning layup with seven seconds remaining sealed a dramatic comeback for the No. 8 Arizona men’s basketball team as it upset No. 5 Florida 65-64 in front of a sold-out McKale Center Saturday night.
The Wildcats trailed by six points with just under one minute remaining in the game, but three straight Florida turnovers opened the door and Arizona pounced. The Wildcats hadn’t led since the score was 7-5 early in the first half. When the final buzzer sounded, though, Arizona was on top and its perfect 8-0 record still intact.
“We’re the real deal,” said sophomore Nick Johnson, who had 15 points and four steals on the night. “Everybody said something about our schedule before this and we just knew it was an opportunity for us to prove ourselves in front of the nation.”
The Wildcats enter the game as a top-10 team, but the young team had yet to be tested. Florida did just that. The Gators dominated for a majority the game, leading by eleven points in both the first and second half.
But on a magical day for Arizona athletics, the home team couldn’t be put away.
“One thing we did exceptionally well is that we played with incredible effort all the way to the final buzzer,” head coach Sean Miller said. “We gave ourselves a chance and then we had a player on our team make a big play.”
“We played a great team … There’s nobody who watched that game and said anything other than, ‘Boy, Arizona pulled that one out.’”
Miller added that he’s been on the other side of the coin, and even when a team plays better for a majority of the game, they still have to finish it out. Florida failed to do that and the late turnovers and missed free throw by Kenny Boynton on the front end of a one-and-one let Arizona steal the game away in dramatic fashion.
“It’s not always going to be pretty,” said senior Solomon Hill, who had a game-high 18 points on 5-for-9 shooting. “But if you stay with it and do what you do, things like that can happen.”
Arizona trailed 32-21 nearing the end of the first half but Johnson hit back-to-back threes to end a cold shooting streak for the Wildcats from deep. Hill added in a breakaway dunk and the 8-0 run to cut the deficit to just three at halftime. The UA finished the second half in a similar fashion, this time with a 7-0 run, but the soft layup by Lyons finally put the Wildcats in front.
“I (saw forward) Patric Young on me and I just felt it was a mismatch for me and I just tried to take him one-on-one,” said Lyons, who had 14 points but three turnovers to only two assists. “It worked out.”
Florida entered the game as the nation’s second-best scoring defense and it showed. The Gators held the normally sharpshooting Wildcats to 7-for-20 shooting from beyond the arc and only allowed Arizona to grab four offensive rebounds.
The young UA big men were held in check all night, as center Kaleb Tarczewski fouled out with 5:27 remaining and the Gators out rebounded the UA 33 to 22. It wasn’t until late in the game that forward Grant Jerrett finally made an impact in the game, but the timing couldn’t have been better for Arizona. The freshman made two jumpers in the final eleven minutes and his late free throw put the Wildcats in striking distance for Lyons’ game-winner.
“I think our freshmen big guys now understand why we’re lifting weights when we talk about how physical the game is,” Miller said. “That was a very, very physical game.”
Florida was led by guard Mike Rosario, 16 points, and forward Erik Murphy, 15 points, who combined to shoot 10-for-18 from the floor. The Gators were also lethal from distance, hitting 10 of their 18 three point attempts. UF forced Arizona to commit eight turnovers in the first half, but the roles reversed in the second period of play. Florida made nine in the final 20 minutes, with three coming in that last minute of play.
Florida had a chance to win after Lyons hit the go-ahead bucket, but the Gators lost control of the ball, forcing guard Scottie Wilbekin to heave a contested three pointer as time expired.
“We didn’t win the National Championship tonight,” Miller said. “But what we did do is we have a win in our pocket that’s going to be very, very meaningful because Florida isn’t a good team; I think they have the makings of a great team.”
Arizona’s effectiveness in the full court defense comes as somewhat of a surprise considering both Hill and Miller said after the game that the team never practices the press.
“I’m not going to lie to you — none,” Hill said when asked how often they work on it. “But desperate times call for desperate measures.”
The basketball team wasn’t the only group of Wildcats to have a dramatic win Saturday, though. The football team made an even more unbelievable comeback in the New Mexico Bowl earlier in the day, scoring 13 points in the final 46 seconds to beat Nevada 49-48.
It seemed fitting then, that during halftime head coach Rich Rodriguez made a speech to the 14,545 fans in attendance and an assortment of players were honored as the held up the New Mexico Bowl trophy.