What a day it was in McKale Center, the epicenter for Arizona athletics and college basketball in the west.
How can you forget a day like Thursday when it comes to Arizona basketball?
From just after noon to late into the night – almost into the next day – Sean Miller & Co., orchestrated the theme of: be aggressive yet controlled.
From Miller emphatically pronouncing his innocence on erroneous reports about an FBI scandal to the return of Allonzo Trier after a suspension to, um, Dusan Ristic becoming the winningest Wildcat in program history, it was a day to remember after Arizona defeated Stanford 75-67 to clinch at least a tie for the Pac-12 title.
It earned the No. 1 seed in next week’s Pac-12 tournament.
Mission accomplished. Arizona is now 23-7 overall and 13-4 in the Pac-12.
Could you blame Miller, who received a standing ovation when he stepped onto the court, for exhaling and thanking the basketball gods the day was finally over?
“I don’t really look at it that way,” said Miller, who said the ovation made him emotional. “For me, it’s kind of taking one day at a time and I think it’s the best way of taking things in sports. Tomorrow is a new day and what comes about we have to be able to handle and do things right and be prepared.”
Arizona was, even in the absence of Miller all week as he stayed away from the team while assistant coaches Lorenzo Romar and Mike Phelps continued to run the program. The transition proved to be smooth on the handoff last weekend and the handoff back on Thursday, although Miller joked it was a “good job” on the outside.
Heck, as Thursday’s sun came up one wondered if Miller would even be on the sidelines, given all the speculation that he wouldn’t be back after sitting out last weekend’s Oregon game. But with Arizona officials supporting him and him backing himself, Miller moved on.
“Right now, it’s on me focusing on the now,” he said, when asked how the week was. “(And) focusing on coaching this team and running this basketball program … Our team has certainly dealt with a lot of adversity and with young people and college sports you don’t give it enough credit for preparing for what’s to come when you leave school. We have a lot of players who have seen a lot and done a lot and understand what criticism is like … you learn how to fight through those times. Everybody who is on this team will benefit from that and my hope is we benefit as we come down the home stretch in March.”
After all, March is when it all matters. And as we begin the month, wouldn’t it be the perfect time to galvanize at the right time?
He said yes, but, “it didn’t really feel that way tonight. It’s been a hard week for those guys, with those turnovers we weren’t as in sync as you’d want us to be. But we played with great effort.”
Isn’t that all a coach asks for – under any circumstances? Thursday, however, wasn’t your typical day at McKale. Miller announced a press conference, talked for 4 ½ minutes about his innocence and his want to get back and coach a very good basketball team.
Ristic said he had never seen Miller so emotional upon his return.
“He was extremely excited,” Ristic said of Miller’s emotions. “I’ve never seen him like that before. He’s ready to lead his team to the championship this year. He brought a lot of energy to us tonight.”
Miller said Ristic may have been “nice because I don’t know if I was any more excited” compared to other times.
“There are a lot of emotions going through. It certainly wasn’t your normal day but we got through the game … We feel very good of what we’ve done.”
And rightly so, Ristic, who had 21 points on yet another superb night, finished with 21 points in his second-to-last game in McKale Center. He has now been part of 111 wins as an Arizona player, surpassing the likes of Matt Muehlebach and Kaleb Tarczeweski, who were tied for the top spot.
“This means a lot obviously; (it’s) a result of my hard work,” said Ristic, “and a result of the culture of this program … all the players that I played with since my freshman year all the way to this year. It feels good to have accomplished something like that (in) this program. It’s something that will stay with me forever in my life. I’m just happy about it.”
And, he’s happy how UA played, although it wasn’t perfect. It was the same way the team handled the week that had so much to deal with, especially a coach who seemed to be in limbo.
“I think we handled it really well. This team is showing great resiliency. There was lot of negative energy around our program and we showed how tough we are, not just off the court but on the court as well,” Ristic said. “From this point on, this is going to help us. We are ready to play our best basketball.”