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Thursday, July 24, 2014 | Last updated: 1:29am

Arizona cuts first net and achieves first goal



Arizona cutting down the net after Sunday night’s win in McKale Center was a symbol of its conference authority.

Ten feet high on a ladder, with about 14,545 fans still packed inside the arena, head coach Sean Miller and every Wildcat player cut off a piece of nylon and raised it into the air in celebration of the difficult climb they had just conquered.

The climb to the top was a little more terrifying and unfamiliar to some.

“I had to teach T.J. [McConnell],” junior guard Nick Johnson said with a grin. “He didn’t know where or how to cut the net.”

Arizona (27-2, 14-2 Pac-12 Conference) claimed the 2013-14 Pac-12 conference title outright with two games remaining on its schedule.

When the final horn sounded, McConnell, a junior transfer from mid-major Duquesne, slammed the ball into the ground, pointed at the Wildcat fans and yelled while Johnson came up from behind and gave him a bear hug.

This is the second regular season Pac-12 title for fifth-year Arizona head coach Miller. The first was in 2010-11.

Miller said there were many similarities between this year’s title and the previous one: Both came on Senior Day and both had the same feeling to them.

Unlike McConnell, Miller has experienced cutting down the nets. During Miller’s freshman and sophomore playing years at Pittsburgh in 1987 and 1988, the then-point guard claimed two regular season Big East conference championships.

That didn’t mean he wasn’t emotional when he stood high on the ladder sunday night.

“I could have cried or yelled,” Miller said. “Winning the regular season championship is not something that we take lightly.”

After an offseason of speculation and hype, when the games finally began on Nov. 8, a regular season conference title was almost an afterthought for Wildcat followers.

But for Arizona, it was the first of many targets, a goal that could not be skipped.

“This was one of our three goals we set this year,” Johnson said. “They were winning the regular season [title], the Pac-12 tournament and the National Championship.”

Despite a loaded roster of highly touted freshmen and athletic returning players, Arizona had to get better every game and every practice, something Miller calls “honoring the process.”

Following Sunday’s win, Miller said he is seeing this team practice and play harder than it ever has in the past — practicing and playing harder even after starting forward Brandon Ashley went down with a season ending foot injury on Feb. 1, and especially in the past two weeks since losing to ASU on Feb. 14.

The move to add more depth on this year’s Wildcat team might have been the most important move of the season. While most teams would have folded after losing a starter like Ashley, Arizona reinvented itself, and after a slight skid in early February, the Wildcats were able to get back on track and capture their first goal before March Madness.

If things go according to plan, this will be just the first net they cut down this season.
“This is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” McConnell said.

—Follow Luke Della @LukeDella


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