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March 15, 2013
Say hello to Arizona basketball: the paradox.
Thursday's defeat of Colorado in Pac-12 Conference quarterfinal play was not as lopsided as the 79-69 final score indicated. Yet, somehow, the final margin also was much closer than the game played out at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Theoretically, that makes no sense. In practice, and as manifested through the Wildcats, it makes perfect sense.
Much has been made both in the media and among fans of how wildly unpredictable this college basketball has been. Few teams embody the erratic nature the sport has taken on quite like UA.
Arizona played one of its best games since the calendar turned to 2013 - in stretches. There also were periods of pure exasperation that nearly whittled a sizable lead to nothing. Truly, this team is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle and shrouded in mystery.
True team basketball characterized play on the offensive end. All nine Wildcats who saw the court scored a field goal, including guards Nick Johnson and Jordin Mayes. Each is seemingly hitting his stride at the most opportune time. UA dished 16 assists; the Buffs had just six.
A renewed defensive intensity forced CU into 43.1 percent shooting from the floor, including 40.7 percent in the second half. When these teams met on Feb. 14, the Buffs shot over 59 percent in the second half en route to a 71-58 win.
Freshman Grant Jerrett was central to the defensive effort with four blocked shots. His recent if not sudden development into a viable post presence is one of the most promising signs for this Wildcat team's continued March success.
And yet, a lead that once reached 14 was slashed to a perilous two points in the final minutes. Arizona State led UA's semifinal opponent UCLA by double digits in the second half, only to melt down and lose 80-75. The Grand Canyon State teetered close to a pair of impressive Las Vegas busts.
Realistically, UA shot CU back into the game. The Wildcats attempted 27 3-pointers. Mark Lyons hoisted one-third of those, and connected on just two.
But then, if a player is indicative of this team's paradoxical nature, it's Lyons. The second of his made 3-pointers also was his final attempt, and it was a biggie. A bucket from the corner late into the shot clock extended the lead to seven with two minutes remaining.
The shot didn't exactly put CU away - the Buffs would score the next five points to close within the tightest margin since early in the first half - but it did give UA breathing room.
CU was forced into a position that it had to throw its proverbial kitchen sink at the Wildcats, but were in too deep of a hole after Lyons' triple to rally. Despite the missed seven 3-pointers and an inopportune late turnover, Lyons was vital to the winning efforts.
Head coach Sean Miller's words last week resonate. He said he "know[s] we wouldn't [have won 24 regular season games]" without Lyons in the backcourt. Take away Lyons' 14 points and three assists on Thursday, and Miller's sentiment rings true.
And with a quick turnaround before getting a third crack at rival UCLA, Thursday's highs and lows mean?nothing, really. The outstanding play of role players like Mayes and Jerrett exist in a vacuum. So do the 18 missed 3-pointers.
The beauty of college basketball is an Arizona can play some of its best basketball on the year and still need clutch foul shooting late. UCLA can be outplayed for most of 30 minutes but come out on the winning end. And when the two meet a day later, it has little bearing on the next 40 minutes.
Besides, madness and predictability really don't suit one another.