By the time Sean Miller reached the ladder to get his slice of the net, it’s likely 24 thoughts went through his head. One for every Arizona win this season … with a good bet there was plenty more.
How could there have not been?
Arizona’s 66-54 win over California in McKale Center helped the Wildcats win its fifth Pac-12 regular season title (fourth outright) in eight seasons. It also put an ending to what could be described as a Twilight Zone episode of a season that saw his Wildcats put an end to a regular season like no other.
“Was just trying to soak it all in,” Miller said when asked what he was thinking at the top of the ladder. “One thing you learn is: what you have today can be taken away very easily. You can’t take anything for granted, especially like a moment today.”
No truer words could have been spoken, given the circumstances of the drama-filled week.
He continued …
“With a team, in college basketball, there is so much change from one season to the next that, of course, we’re going to look totally different (next year). (Some) of the players you watched tonight won’t be here next year. You try to soak it all in and enjoy it and try to make it last as long as you can.”
And, well, they almost did with the post-game celebration taking almost as long as the game – I joke – which proved to be an afterthought for the Cats. Saturday was about the celebration with Miler breaking news after he said goodbye to seniors Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Dusan Ristic and Keanu Pinder.
Miller also said goodbye to junior Allonzo Trier, sophomore Rawle Alkins and freshman Deandre Ayton, who had a monster of a game by scoring 26 points and pulling down 20 rebounds.
“They aren’t coming back,” Miller said, cracking a smile when asked why he honored them as well. Yes, it was not a secret the three would be going to the NBA next season but this was the first time he broke protocol to announce underclassmen leaving early.
“What it used to be isn’t today,” Miller said, saying why he announced them. “You adjust with the times. Those guys deserved an ovation just like the seniors because they are not going to play in McKale again.”
Jackson-Cartwright said it was “appropriate” that Miller did that. As Miller said when he spoke to about 8,000 fans who stayed to enjoying the moment of the celebration, it took a McKale Center “village” to help raise this basketball team so he wanted them to savor the moment, too.
And they did with some getting handshakes and high-fives as the players went through the Zona Zoo to thank their fellow students. They then went through a portion of the regular fan section to do the same. It was their way of saying thanks for the memories.
“A lot of emotions,” said Jackson-Cartwright of the day/game. “It’s been an emotional week. There’s been a lot of things flying around. I’ve been trying to stay focused, trying my best to stay focused for the team. There was a lot going on. I can’t believe this day is finally here. It’s surreal, and I’m glad I was able to share it with my family, friends and teammates.”
Again, it took a village to get to this point, where Arizona is once again the champion of the conference heading into the Pac-12 Tournament next week in Las Vegas. What does he think it all meant for Miller to cutting down the net?
“It means a lot to him; I know it does,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “I have been around him a lot. He doesn’t really show his true emotions. I know for him, this is where he wanted to be. This is where he needs to be. For him, I think it’s a great time and it’s special.”
Indeed. Of course, it’s always good to have a special player come along for the ride. That would be Ayton, who had Arizona’s first 20 point game, 20 rebound game since the 1975-76 season when Al Fleming had 22 points and 23 rebounds in a win over Old Dominion.
“Don’t get lost in the shuffle what you witnessed today,” Miller said, “you saw a player score 26 points and have 20 rebounds in a very low productive game. You can watch games in McKale for the next 10 years and not see that happen ever again.
“Deandre certainly didn’t need an exclamation point but he certainly put one on his freshman year.”
With a lot to still play for and more nets to possibly cut down in the coming weeks.