Editor's note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for our print readers.
Sean Miller stood by his team's locker room door and watched every player walk by, one by one, waiting for the stragglers, never saying a word.
"I've never seen him that angry," said UA sophomore Solomon Hill. "Nope. Never."
The procession was slowed when senior Jamelle Horne stopped, bent over, and stared at the ground for what seemed like forever. Miller didn't move.
By the time the last Wildcat entered their Staples Center dressing room, Miller joined his assistants in the corridor and raised the volume. I don't know what he said, but I could hear his voice over Washington's joyous trophy-presentation ceremony and the blare of the public address system.
"I'm just as mad as the coach is," said Hill. "It just sucks to let a game like that get away."
If Saturday's Pac-10 championship game had been a horse race, the only way Arizona could've lost was for the jockey to fall off. Washington won 77-75 in overtime and after talking about it for 10 minutes in a formal interview setting, Miller stepped into a hallway and talked about it again.
"I don't have any answer or explanation," he said.
It was madness. Sometimes the madness is sweet. Sometimes, like Saturday at Staples Center, it is bitter, almost overwhelming.
At precisely that moment, as Miller began a trek back to Arizona's solemn locker room, Washington forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning walked by wearing a purple 2011 Pac-10 championship cap.
More was lost than just some free caps.
"You never want to go into the tournament with a loss like that," said UA forward Derrick Williams. "You know it's always going to be in the back of our minds."
This was supposed to be a game of few consequences, with the crop already harvested and Miller waiting for the market to yield a fair price. But once the Wildcats took a 66-62 lead with 26.2 seconds remaining, the allure of sweeping the Pac-10's two basketball championships became powerful.
Arizona lost because it failed to guard C.J. Wilcox on an overtime-forcing three-pointer with 7 seconds remaining in regulation. That wasn't the shot that made the difference on the scoreboard, but it was the shot that allowed the Huskies to put on those purple caps.
"It was a lack of concentration," said UA forward Kevin Parrom. "It was a lack of maturity."
This is not a good time, mid-March, to hear those words.
By dinnertime today, the Wildcats will have moved on and the excitement of the NCAA tournament will minimize what went down at Staples Center. By the time Miller hits the practice court Monday, he will use Saturday's slip-up as a teaching tool.
Look at it this way: Nobody came home from Los Angeles with a trophy, but neither did the Wildcats come home with big heads and runaway egos, which was the fallout from their Feb. 19 victory over Washington. Instead of snipping down the nets and allowing the applause of their happy fans to make them feel contented, there exists a state of anger/hunger that should serve Miller well in his team's preparation.
Isn't that the best way to rationalize the whole thing?
"This team needs a lesson like the one we just took," said Miller. "It's all part of the journey. Usually, you have to go through a time like this."
Miller didn't buy the no-consequences theory. He believes, as all coaches, that there is a significant difference between 28-6 and 27-7. He worries, as all coaches, that losing the last game before Selection Sunday can mean the difference between being a No. 5 seed and a No. 6 seed, or something similar.
He insists that a team never needs to have its confidence crushed on such a big stage.
"There are always consequences," he said.
It's funny how the Pac-10 tournament grows on you. At the beginning, it doesn't seem greatly important to a team that has won the regular season title and has 25 victories. Just stay safe and healthy, don't get embarrassed and maneuver your team to Selection Sunday with its reputation intact.
Sometimes it's not that easy to get from A to B. Ask Kevin O'Neill.
The game changes now. Arizona can't worry about Washington because it is sure to be playing a team of Washington's stature in a first-round NCAA game. If the Wildcats are a No. 6 seed, which seems logical, they would play a No. 11 seed. Aren't the Huskies something close to an 11 seed?
Isn't an 11 seed a team like Michigan State, Butler or Villanova? That can't be comforting.
As Miller rejoined his team following Saturday's media obligations, blaming himself instead of his team, he kissed his wife, Amy, and walked away.
"To be honest, he was a little bit calmer than I thought he would be," said UA point guard MoMo Jones. "But I know he's upset inside, I know it's killing him."
But this time, fortunately, the Wildcats live to play another day.
Men's Pac-10 tournament
At Staples Center, Los Angeles.
First round, Wednesday
• Game 1: No. 9 Oregon State 69, No. 8 Stanford 67
• Game 2: No. 7 Oregon 76, No. 10 ASU 69
• Game 3: No. 4 USC 70, No. 5 California 56
• Game 4: No. 1 Arizona 78, No. 9 Oregon St. 69
• Game 5: No. 7 Oregon 76, No. 2 UCLA 59
• Game 6: No. 3 Washington 89, No. 6 Washington State 87
• Game 7: No. 1 Arizona 67, No. 4 USC 62
• Game 8: No. 3 Washington 69, No. 7 Oregon 51
• Game 9: No. 3 Washington 77, No. 1 Arizona 75, OT