McKale Center energy fuels UA basketball success
Wednesday night’s McKale Center celebration started with a whimper, but ended with a resounding roar, as the Wildcats’ 73-66 victory against Stanford honored the 40th anniversary of the stadium in style.
The crowd of 14,545 donned a pinwheel color scheme of red, white and blue, yet it was the Cardinal on the court that was prepared for the party, jumping out to a 10-0 lead. It was always going to be Arizona’s night, though, and the home victory gave Wildcat fans what they’ve grown accustomed to during the last 40 years in Tucson.
“It was good to walk into the gym and see the colors,” senior forward Solomon Hill said.
“We had a great atmosphere. I think we played some good basketball, but the key was that we got the win.”
The victory was just one of 518 in McKale Center through the years, good enough for a .837 win percentage all-time. And as much as Hill and the Wildcats revel in the atmosphere, the opposing visitors dread entering the continually packed house.
“This is the best crowd in the western United States,” said NBA Hall-of-Fame and former UCLA player Bill Walton, who broadcast Wednesday’s game for ESPN.
“Arizona is the only [team] in the conference that sells tickets on its own program. Everybody else sells the other team, which the exception of Arizona, which has led the conference in attendance for 27 consecutive years.”
The win didn’t come with the same ease as the Wildcats’ 87-69 inaugural victory against Wyoming on Feb. 1, 1973. The 13,652 fans in attendance watched as a freshman backcourt of Coniel Norman and Eric Money combined to score 57 points and dispose of the Broncos.
This time it was two seniors — Hill and guard Mark Lyons — who carried the scoring load for Arizona. The two senior starters combined for 48 points on 16-for-26 shooting, eight rebounds and seven assists. Add that to the excitable Wildcat fanbase, and No. 7 Arizona was too much for Stanford at home.
“It’s always a great environment to play in [McKale Center] because it has such a great crowd,” Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins said. “They do a great job, of course, with the history and tradition here. And they really came out in full force tonight.
“Not only did the players play well, but the fans were terrific.”
Most of McKale Center’s success came during the tenure of Hall-of-Fame coach Lute Olson. Slowly, though, head coach Sean Miller is making the building his home as well.
Through four seasons Miller, as well as Hill and senior Kevin Parrom, are 53-10 in Tucson. Yet being at home doesn’t guarantee a victory. That has been made clear in the past few weeks.
While Miller emphasizes that the Wildcats typically start fast, leading at the first media timeout in 15 of their 22 games, the team has come out slow twice in the last three home games. Arizona fell into a 10-0 hole Wednesday and recovered, but it wasn’t so fortunate after UCLA jumped out to a 19-3 lead two weeks ago.
“If there is a difference in McKale with our team, it’s feeling some anxiety to perform well,” Miller said. “Not that we think we’re better than the other team.”
After starting sluggishly against Stanford, Miller said the team almost felt guilty for letting such a great home court advantage going to waste. But this time around the Wildcats didn’t panic like they did against the Bruins.
After falling behind by double-digits, Arizona — with the help of 14,545 multi-colored supporters — outscored the Cardinal 73-56 to leave junior Dwight Powell and Stanford with another McKale Center defeat.
“They have a good crowd, probably one of the best in the Pac-12,” Powell said. “They’re loud and always packed. It’s a really exciting environment.”