The Arizona Wildcats made it known. With a win against the Florida Gators, they're a legitimate contender.
Hours after the Arizona Wildcats downed the Nevada Wolf Pack in football by leading for the final seconds -- and only the final seconds -- the school's basketball team downed the Florida Gators 65-64 in McKale Center in a game Billy Donovan's squad looked destined to win from the beginning.
Though, instead of doing it in a laugher, the No. 8 Wildcats beat a talented No. 5 Gators team that displayed what Sean Miller must've feared coming into it. The defense was bothering Arizona, and point guard Mark Lyons had three of the team's eight first-half turnovers. But Lyons more than made up for it, taking advantage of a missed Florida free throw and several late turnovers.
Despite contact from powerful Florida big man Patric Young, he finished on a floater off the glass with seven seconds left in the game for the go-ahead score. The Wildcats led 7-5 just 3:08 minutes into the game, and they wouldn't hold the advantage again until Lyons hit the improbable shot.
Holding Arizona without a field goal for a good five minutes near the end of the first half, Florida built a 32-21 lead, going in and out of a man press and a zone defense that had the Wildcats guessing. Were it not for an 8-0 rampage, the Wildcats wouldn't have a respectable 32-29 deficit heading to the locker room.
With eight first-half turnovers, Miller talked his talk at the half and saw his team give it up just twice in the second half. Solomon Hill came out of the break aggressively, hitting two threes and two free throws in the first six minutes.
But like a spring, any tension put on the Gators' lead only resulted in Florida relieving it to spread the lead back out. It led Arizona, 51-41, with 12 minutes to play in the second half.
Arizona found its biggest success playing smallball. Miller went with Hill at the power forward position and Grant Jerrett at center, and that lineup along with Kevin Parrom at the small forward slot opened the floor and led to three-pointers by Johnson and Lyons to bring UA within three, 61-58, with five minutes to play.
Again, Florida looked like they'd finally put their foot down. The Wildcats, however, had other plans. They pressed off inbound passes, held Florida to one made field goal in the final five minutes and capitalized off gifts from the Gators. Kenny Boynton, a point guard much like Lyons in trying to learn how to play smart, jacked up two three-pointers in the final three minutes of play.
UA forced three turnovers within a 20 second period around the one-minute mark to score seven points in the final minute of play, setting up Lyons for the game-winning shot. The UA point guard had 14 points, three turnovers and two assists.
More importantly, he was part of the Arizona defense that limited the Gators. Mike Rosario scored 16, seven of which came off shot-clock beating bailout shots. Murphy scored 15, but outside of that, the Wildcats' young bigs held Patric Young to eight points, and Lyons won the battle of senior point guards; Boynton shot 2-of-10 from the floor for five points.
Hill led Arizona with 18 points and three assists -- not counting was his postup late in the game that led to a pass earning Jerrett a trip to the foul line. His defense on UF stretch four Erik Murphy was equally impeccable.
Parrom was again useful in the energy department. Along with seven points, he led the team with four rebounds and had three assists, helping steady the team by his high-post play in the Florida zone. And Nick Johnson quietly filled up the stat box, scoring 15 points, stealing the ball four times, and posting three assists on the night.
As expected, the Wildcats' big men didn't produce in the box score. They and Angelo Chol, who played for only five minutes, combined for nine points and nine boards. But they held their own against Young, and they at least made Florida's guards think twice about going to the paint. The Gators took only eight free throw attempts in a sign that they weren't willing to attack the Wildcats inside.
That's if they could shed the Wildcats' perimeter defense.
A win against a top-10 opponent is nice for Arizona. Miller's not one to smile, but his mood as he walked off Lute and Bobbi Olson court was apparent.
That's because he knows how good his team is right now. Like all the other games, the Wildcats' sense of urgency refused to shine until the game clock neared its end. Maybe it was almost too close. Still, their calmness throughout only shows how talented and full of belief the players are; whether it's Clemson, Charleston Southern or No. 5 Florida, Arizona believes it'll make a run.
Florida shot 46 percent, 56 from three-point range and outrebounded Arizona 27-21 and 11-4 on the offensive boards. They had only 14 turnovers despite the flurry of them late. And Arizona won.
On a wild, wild day in Wildcat Country, bearing down never got more literal.