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Arizona showed poised on the road at San Diego State and battled to take down Duke at a neutral site last month. In the process, the Wildcats made the steady climb up the Associated Press Top 25 and coaches' polls, moving from sixth to second over the first five weeks of the college basketball season.
Then, top-ranked Michigan State lost to visiting North Carolina by 14 points Wednesday, making Saturday afternoon's Arizona-UNLV showdown about much more than just a nationally televised "white out" featuring the nation's second-best team.
With play stopped and 16.5 seconds to play in a 63-58 win over the Runnin' Rebels, the 15,545 white-clad fans at McKale Center started the celebration that had been brewing the last three days and the ZonaZoo student section erupted into a "Number 1!" chant.
The 10-year wait is now all but officially over: The Wildcats (9-0) are expected to be the new No. 1-ranked team when the latest polls are released Monday, but it was far from easy.
"I think it's something we feel like we've earned," head coach Sean Miller said about the likelihood of becoming UA's first team since the week of March 10, 2003 to sit atop the polls.
That 2002-03 Wildcats team occupied the No. 1 spot for 13 weeks and this year's group will begin its quest to stay atop the mountain next week. The pair of games include next Saturday's true road contest at preseason top-10 Michigan - which may tumble out of the Top 25 after the No. 22 Wolverines lost their lone game of the week, 79-69, at No. 10 Duke.
UA point guard T.J. McConnell, who tied Brandon Ashley with a team-high 13 points in the win, said the team wanted to seize the moment and capitalize.
"I felt relief because I know all of us wanted this so bad," said McConnell, who shot 6 of 10 from the field on a day the Wildcats converted just 32.4 percent as a team in the second half.
Trailing 57-56, the Duquesne transfer provided the go-ahead basket at the 3:10 mark. Following a Bryce Dejean-Jones missed shot, McConnell then found Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for a baseline dunk to push the lead to 60-57 and force a UNLV timeout with 2:11 to play
With 27 seconds left, McConnell then capped his masterful performance with a baseline drive and dish to a streaking Ashley down the middle of the lane for the dagger.
McConnell scored or assisted on the Wildcats' last five field goals.
"I just tried to slow the game down, let it come to me," said McConnell, who also collected seven rebounds and three steals.
Kaleb Tarczewski and Nick Johnson scored 12 points apiece for Arizona, which shot 41.8 percent in the contest.
McConnell added a game-high six assists, tying teammate and other hero Hollis-Jefferson.
The standout freshman, often in the shadow of fellow first-year forward Aaron Gordon, came off the bench to add nine points and seven rebounds in 28 stellar minutes. Hollis-Jefferson played extra minutes in place of an ineffective Gabe York, who played just six first-half minutes.
"It felt great," Hollis-Jefferson said of his performance in an electric atmosphere.
The hopes of playing spoiler disappeared late in the second half for UNLV (3-4), which led by three at the half but did not go down lightly.
The Wildcats missed several point-blank shots around the rim throughout the second half and the Rebels hung around.
The usually reliable tandem of Johnson and Gordon also combined to shoot a woeful 6 of 25, and Gordon's left eye was swollen for much of the final 20 minutes after suffering a cut.
"I would call them four- to six-inch shots," Miller said of the second-half struggles in the paint.
Trailing 56-55 after a McConnell steal and layup, Khem Birch converted after an offensive rebound to account for one of 18 lead changes in the contest.
But UNLV made just one free throw and missed its last five field goals over the final 3:28 to come up short.
Dejean-Jones scored a game-high 16 points off the bench but made just 3 of 11 shots in the second half. The Rebels made just 7 of 25 shots after halftime.
UNLV forward Roscoe Smith, the nation's leading rebounder at 16.2 per game coming in, was limited to 10 points and six boards.
As a team, the Wildcats dominated the glass, 41-29 - including 18-5 in offensive rebounds.
"We had similar looks but Arizona is so physical and they did a good job at defending us," UNLV head coach Dave Rice said.
The Rebels started the contest with a vastly different 64 percent shooting to match the energy of the sellout crowd.
The first 20 minutes went back and forth as the teams combined for four ties and nine lead changes.
Hollis-Jefferson had it going early for the Wildcats, surpassing his career high with five assists before the break - including helpers on three consecutive Arizona baskets to push the lead to 37-31.
"Guys like T.J., Brandon, those guys were cutting," Hollis-Jefferson said.
But UNLV finished the final 2:08 strong. Kevin Olekaibe accounted for five points in a 9-2 run to close the half, including the go-ahead 3-pointer at the 1:12 mark.
After Tarczewski's shot was blocked around the basket, Kendall Smith converted on the other end to give the Rebels a 42-39 halftime lead.
"It's going to give us more confidence," Birch said of his team's effort. "We know what we can do now when we go against good teams, and [the game will] help us be confident in the upcoming games against good teams."
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Click Here to view this Link.Tracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor