Arizona should get boost from knocking off Florida
(AP Photo/Wily Low)
By JOHN MARSHALL
AP Basketball Writer
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Arizona was largely ignored as it raced through the early part of its schedule.
Sure, the Wildcats were ranked in the top 10 and off to their best start in 14 years, but the schedule wasn't exactly difficult.
The perception should change after their pull-it-out-of-thin-air win over No. 5 Florida on Saturday night.
Rallying from six points down in the final minute to beat at top-five team? That's a pretty good statement.
"We're the real deal," sophomore guard Nick Johnson said. "Everybody said something about our schedule before this and this was the opportunity to prove ourselves in front of the nation."
They certainly did, though it took them a while to get going.
After winning its first seven games by an average of 20 points, No. 8 Arizona had its hands full in the McKale Center's first matchup between top 10 teams since 2004.
Deep and talented, the Gators also were undefeated coming in and had one of the nation's best defenses, holding teams to 48 points per game.
Florida's mix of zone and man defenses, not mention its size inside, gave the Wildcats all kinds trouble in the first half. Arizona managed to keep it close, only to fall behind by double digits again early in the second half.
The Wildcats managed to chip into the lead, only to fall back again.
Trailing 64-58 with a minute left, Arizona appeared to be done.
Instead, the Wildcats pulled off a magic act that likely will be remembered for a long time in Tucson.
It started with a couple of free throws by Kevin Parrom with 56 seconds left. Arizona's press created a turnover to set up a layup by Solomon Hill, then did it again to send Grant Jerrett to the line.
The freshman hit 1 of 2, leaving the Wildcats a point behind, so they were forced to foul Florida's Kenny Boynton. A 90 percent free-throw shooter this season, he missed with 21 seconds left and Arizona snared the rebound.
Mark Lyons ended up with the ball on the right side and, seeing he was being guarded by Florida's Patric Young, put his head down and charged toward the basket. Facing pressure from the 6-foot-9 center, Lyons angled his body and flipped up a shot that hit high off the glass and fell through with 7 seconds left.
Arizona's defense closed it out, forcing Florida to fumble the ball away before launching a desperation 3-pointer that was nowhere near going in.
The victory sent the Wildcats charging off the bench, a handful of students onto the floor and coach Sean Miller into the arms of athletic director Greg Byrne.
In the short term, it should give the Wildcats a big boost of confidence.
Long term, the come-from-behind victory over the No. 5 team in the country is going to look awfully good come March, maybe even into April.
"We didn't win the national championship tonight," Miller said. "But what we did do is we have a win in our pocket that's going to be very, very meaningful because Florida isn't a good team - I think they have the makings of a great team."
Arizona may as well, thanks to the addition of Lyons this season.
Miller has been a superb recruiter in his four seasons at Arizona, landing one stellar class after another.
His class last year netted Johnson and athletic forward Angelo Chol, and this year's class includes three of the best incoming big men in the country: Jerrett, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski.
Combined with a solid core of upperclassmen, the Wildcats were going to be in good shape this season no matter what.
Lyons could put them over the top.
A former recruit of Miller's at Xavier, he led the Musketeers to the NCAA tournament three times, including the regional finals a year ago. As a graduate, he was allowed to transfer to Arizona without having to sit out, giving the Wildcats a heady, experienced point guard to lead all those young players.
Lyons struggled at times early in the season as he adjusted to new teammates, getting more turnovers than assists. Coming off a four-point game against Southern Miss on Dec. 4, he had a breakout game against Clemson, scoring 20 points while helping the Wildcats rally in the second half for a 66-54 win.
His confidence rising, Lyons stroked in some big shots against Florida, including his fearless drive over the outstretched arms of a player eight inches taller for the winning basket.
"We believe in a lot of guys on this team, but no one believes in Mark Lyons more than me," Miller said. "I've seen him since he's been in 10th grade. Some guys are wired for the big moment, big stage. That big shot, he wants to take it or make the big play and no question when he drove I knew that something good was going to happen."
Updated December 16, 2012