High stakes for Arizona basketball come with win over UNLV
McKale Center erupted with the chant “number one” as the last seconds on the clock ran out to secure a 63-58 Arizona (9-0) win over UNLV (3-4) for the annual whiteout game.
The sea of white that filled McKale Center did not seem to blind the Wildcats.
“It was a little bright out there,” freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said, laughing. “We’re not really worried about what type of atmosphere it’s going to be; we’re worried about how we’re going to play the game and how hard we’re working at practice so we know it’s going to translate into the game.”
The last time Arizona was ranked No. 1, the top song on the Billboard 200 was “Chocolate Factory” by R. Kelly. If that doesn’t make you feel old enough, it was the same year the Pixar movie “Finding Nemo” came out and Ruben Studdard was crowned the winner of “American Idol” over Clay Aiken.
Ryan Revock / The Daily Wildcat UA freshman forward Aaron Gordon walks off the court with a beat up eye after helping to defeat UNLV on Saturday at McKale Center.
It was the week of March 10, 2003. Lute Olson was head coach, and Arizona finished the season with a loss to No. 2 Kansas in the West Regional Final by only three points. It was a year where future NBA players Channing Frye and Andre Iguodala combined to score 609 total points.
With last week’s No. 1 Michigan State losing to North Carolina and No. 3 Kentucky falling to Baylor, the No. 2 Wildcats should get the top spot when the polls come out Monday.
“I think to be ranked number one is maybe the greatest compliment you could have,” head coach Sean Miller said.
But being at the top of the polls comes with a new level of responsibility. Every opponent will try for an upset, and for a game that Arizona was expected to win by 16, according to the betting lines, UNLV’s fight proves that.
The Runnin’ Rebels shot 80 percent from the free throw line compared to Arizona’s 50 percent. They kept close numbers in other areas, shooting a total 46 percent compared to the Wildcats’ 42 percent. UNLV’s Bryce Dejean-Jones led the team with 16 points, shooting six for 16.
“UNLV is a great team that is very well-coached, and they came in here and played really well and nearly came out with the victory. We have to take every game like we’re playing a Duke,” junior guard T.J. McConnell said.
McConnell finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
With a 2012-13 season of close wins and nerve-racking games, Arizona was often referred to as the “Cardiac Cats.” So far this season, the Wildcats have coasted by with high leads, including one over Fairleigh Dickinson by 50 points. A four-point win over Drexel was the second-closest Wildcats victory this season.
But with the lead changing a total of 18 times, it looked like the “Cardiac Cats” had returned to McKale Center, which was electric with the energy of a close game.
The fan and media favorite freshman forward Aaron Gordon did not have his best performance, only scoring four points. After being accidentally elbowed in the face by fellow teammate Brandon Ashley, Gordon was escorted off the court with a bleeding face. He came back out with a swollen eye and a Band-Aid and held up one finger, symbolizing the No. 1 spot he was about to help guide his team to; he finished the game with eight rebounds.
“He’s a warrior,” Miller said. “He’s one of the number of guys who maybe didn’t have as good of an offensive night as he usually does, but this was a high level game.”
The Wildcats will take the ranking with satisfaction, but Miller said he knows it does not mean Arizona won a championship or that the season is over.
“I think it reflects the quality of our program, the incredible atmosphere that we have at McKale, the great teams in the past, players of the past and certainly this year’s team,” Miller said.
—Follow Megan Coghlan @MeganCoghlan