Greg Hansen: As O'Neill goes ballistic, Wildcats reach next stage

2010-03-07T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: As O'Neill goes ballistic, Wildcats reach next stageGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 07, 2010 12:00 am  • 

A fraction of a second remained on the clock, game tied at 69, and at midcourt Nic Wise was bear-hugging Kyle Fogg, who had just drained a free throw that Sean Miller later compared to a putt that would win the Masters.

The decibel reading at McKale Center was at Salim Stoudamire-beats-UCLA-at-the-buzzer levels, and the guy making the most racket was USC coach Kevin O'Neill.

He was so steamed, so red in the face, that when referee Bill Kennedy attempted to get O'Neill back in the coaching box, O'Neill shouted: "Don't come near me!"

Kennedy marched directly at O'Neill, put a finger in his face and told him, I presume, "pipe down," although such advice is rarely heeded in a double-overtime game in which the refs call 49 fouls, almost all of them viewed, by one coach or the other, as pure insanity.

O'Neill thought the game-changing call, Nikola Vucevic fouling Fogg with 0.2 remaining in regulation, USC up 69-66, was a thing of imagination. Miller thought it was a thing of beauty.

What got lost in the chaos was that it was a thing of stupidity. What was any USC player doing within 3 feet of the rushed and worried Fogg in that situation?

Perhaps O'Neill should've given the Trojans the same warning he later gave Kennedy: Don't go near anyone shooting a three-point shot.

Until that moment, all that stood between USC and a season-closing victory was bad luck, bad timing and a referee's whistle. Alas, the Trojans went 0 for 3, decomposing before the eyes of 14,591 at McKale, watching in horror as Fogg went 3 for 3.

After the Wildcats persevered in the second overtime, winning 86-84 on Wise's layup. O'Neill shook hands with Miller but declined to wait for the Wildcats to end their on-court celebration. He thus departed before partaking in the customary protocol of shaking the hands of every visiting player, even those he once coached.

"He didn't even shake our hands after the game," said UA forward Jamelle Horne, shaking his head for emphasis. "Nope."

If it gets this crazy in a game between teams that are a combined 32-28, imagine what the future holds. O'Neill is an unwitting villain here; his messy exit at Arizona was brought about by Lute Olson and not by O'Neill misdeeds. But, hey, when you go on the road in college basketball, the road usually hits back.

It was almost fitting that O'Neill, who was on the bench when the UA program began to unravel, was on the bench when it came together again. The cycle is complete. We can move on now.

The final Pac-10 homestand of Miller's first Arizona season provided a telling answer to those who worried about the future of UA hoops. Tucson fans treated the UCLA-USC series no different than in 1988 and 1998 or at any time.

It didn't matter that the Wildcats opened the weekend at .500 and didn't even look to be a bubble team in the NIT, of all things. The volume of love displayed at McKale was equal to any of the sainted 25 NCAA tournament teams. Nobody seemed to care that this team's most realistic finish is a one-and-done NIT appearance.

The Wildcats lack size and depth, do not have a defensive stopper and have limited scoring options. Yet they played like champions down the stretch, winning three close games that, frankly, they probably should've lost.

"In a funny way, this game has represented our entire season," Miller said. "And in a funny way, it represents Nic Wise and what he has endured."

What it represents is a corner-turning, pride-salvaging season in which Miller and his staff have completed most of the dirty work without getting too dirty. I mean, come on, did anyone truly expect better than a 16-14 regular-season record, or a fourth-place finish in the Pac-10?

"That might have been our ceiling," said Miller. "To me, and I'm not going to say we over-achieved, but it's right around what everyone would've hoped, given the circumstances."

What strikes me most about this UA team is that it has shed its everlasting "soft" label. Did you get a look at those USC bodies? They were unshaven, physical, ripped adults who didn't look like college kids. Alex Stepheson is 22. Marcus Johnson and Mike Gerrity are 23.

"They have some bruisers," Horne said. "It looked like they were mean mugs out there."

And yet the Wildcats didn't back down. UA freshmen Solomon Hill and Derrick Williams both had to change part of their uniforms because they were blood-stained. They combined for 30 points and 14 rebounds.

"We're tough-minded," said Miller, who then reflected on what might've happened had it not been so. "When we were at Cal, just 10 days ago, it looked like the bottom was falling out," he said.

Instead, the Wildcats played hard to the end, winning not a conference title nor an NCAA berth, but the kind of respect and confidence that seemed impossible a few weeks ago.

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