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March 14, 2012

Bucknell halts Arizona's season in NIT opener

An NCAA tournament-less postseason for Arizona came to a crashing halt before it ever really began Wednesday night at McKale Center.

Bucknell reserve Bryson Johnson provided a 3-point dagger for the eighth-seeded Bison with 52 seconds to play, putting the exclamation point on a 65-54 win over the hosts and top-seeded Wildcats in the first round of the NIT.

"It felt better when it went in," Johnson said. "All we worry about is getting stops and moving on to the next play, so I knew it wasn't over. But I definitely felt better when it went in."

Johnson, who scored 14 points off the bench, gave the Bison (25-9) a 10-point lead with one of his four 3-pointers at the 6:17 mark.

UA freshman Nick Johnson answered with his own 3 to ignite a 12-4 run that cut the deficit to two points. But Jesse Perry's free throw with 2:59 remaining would be the final Wildcats points of the game - and, ultimately, the season - in front of a crowd of 8,433.

Bucknell scored the last nine points in the final 2:42, and made Arizona (23-12) the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round of the NIT since Arizona State was bounced in 2010.

"I love our fans. We want to apologize," UA junior Solomon Hill said in the locker room after the game. "The fans showed out tonight and we let them down. We can't lose at home like that."

Like most of the season, the 'Cats had issues controlling the opposition's big man. On this night, it was 6-11 center Mike Muscala. The junior finished with a game-high 20 points and nine rebounds to lead four double-digit scorers for the Bison.

"They have a very good (center) who will definitely play in the NBA," UA head coach Sean Miller said of Muscala.

Along with Bryson Johnson's production, Cameron Ayers added 12 points and 10 rebounds and Joe Willman chipped in 10 points.

Hill was just one of two Wildcats to reach double figures, recording a team-leading 17 points. However, the forward converted just 5 of 13 shots. Perry, playing in his final contest, finished with 14 points.

UA received little production from its guards. Nick Johnson, Jordin Mayes, Kyle Fogg and Brendon Lavender combined for 18 points - Lavender was actually scoreless - and shot just 5-of-22 from the field.

That contributed to a woeful 35.4 percent (17 of 48) for the team.

"It's hard," Fogg said. "It has been a tough few days for us. To get that close and fight hard and just miss, it's tough. It was an emotionally tough and physically tough week."

The senior guard was alluding to the last two weeks in which UA was left out of the NCAA tournament and lost to Colorado in the Pac-12 Conference championship game just four days ago.

Miller agreed with the hangover effect theory.

"Today, we gave into the disappointment from the Pac-12 tournament," the third-year head coach said. "It's OK for people to feel bad about not making the NCAA tournament, but we were given a big opportunity to play in the NIT and we should have responded that way against Bucknell."

After a sluggish first half that resulted in a six-point halftime deficit, the Wildcats came out of the locker room with more energy. UA scored the first seven points of the period capped by an Angelo Chol basket to take a 33-32 advantage - its first of the game - with 17:02 to play.

Bucknell started the game off fast, connecting on nine of its first 15 shots and led by as many as 13 with 5:38 to play in the half.

From there, Fogg, who had not attempted a shot to that point, buried a long jumper and a 3-pointer as part of a 12-3 run for the Wildcats, who never led in the first 20 minutes.

Muscala converted a pair of free throws with 38 seconds to play to stop the run and give the Bison a 32-26 lead at halftime.

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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