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February 12, 2009

A big step forward

It was a monument of a moment for Arizona basketball.

If the Wildcats are able to claw their way into postseason play, it will be looked back upon as the turning point.

Trailing by 12 with 9:51 left in a non-conference game here against Houston Jan. 24, the Cats were hearing footsteps.

One of them was feeling footprints.

On his back at midcourt, UA junior forward Chase Budinger got a good look at the bottom of Aubrey Coleman's sneaker. Accidentally or otherwise (Coleman later said he was sorry) the stomp made famous on YouTube is stamped on the memory of the Wildcat team.

Mr. Coleman squashed Mr. Budinger's face and was asked to leave the premises. It was either an impressive display of clumsiness or one of the most flagrant fouls seen around here in years.

Whatever, Budinger got up off the floor and brought the course of the season with him.

Player and team have been fighting mad ever since.

Arizona outscored Houston 45-27 the rest of the way, won the game 96-90 in overtime and hasn't lost since.

Momentum is a horse and Arizona is in the saddle.

Suddenly a gloomy season has taken on the rosy hue of 16-8, including four straight Pacific-10 Conference wins. The Cats have at least an outside shot at returning to the NCAA Tournament for a 25th consecutive year.

Much will depend on this week's difficult assignments. Coach Russ Pennell's Wildcats host USC (8:30 p.m. Thursday) and first-place UCLA (11 a.m. Saturday) at McKale Center.

A split would be a huge springboard for the Wildcats down the stretch.

Over the past weekend the Cats completed a sweep of the Oregon schools, defeating Oregon Saturday, 87-77, after edging Oregon State Thursday night, 56-53.

Since the incident against Houston, Budinger has been playing his best basketball at Arizona. The talented 6-7 junior from Encinitas, Calif., has seemingly put the season on his shoulders with outstanding play at both ends of the court, with unaccustomed -- and welcome -- leadership and emotion.

Junior postman Jordan Hill led the Cats in scoring against Houston with 30 points. Junior point guard Nic Wise led the team to victory over Washington with 29.

Then Budinger scored 19, 17 and 25 to spark wins against Washington State, Oregon State and Oregon.

Out of the blue, Arizona is back in the race for a bid to the NCAAs.

And a step in the face may turn out to be a shot in the arm.

Corky Simpson

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