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Arizona basketball: Gabe York silences critics with a clutch performance against Cal

The senior guard has received plenty of criticism for his late-game miscues, but against Cal, he delivered when needed most.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

A raucous McKale Center crowd fell into an anxious silence as the basketball left Gabe York's hand.

With the Arizona Wildcats trailing the California Golden Bears by two points with just 30 seconds left, Arizona needed someone to hit a big shot to avoid being upset on its home court, and Sean Miller called on his senior guard to take it.

"I’ve listened or heard the different quotes or different people saying Gabe hasn’t necessarily come through," Miller said. "That maybe you need to give the ball to somebody else... but we were definitely going to him."

Despite a scoreless first half in which he only took one shot, York caught fire in the second half. He scored 19 points, including two 3-pointers that cut Arizona's deficit to five and then two in the final moments of the game. Without York, the game would have already been over and the Wildcats would've been tagged with their second home loss of the season.

"In the first half, I wasn’t hesitant or anything, I was looking for my teammates," York said. "Our gameplan was to get the ball into the post. In the second half, Coach just said 'let loose'. I did that and my teammates did a great job giving me the ball and getting me open to knock shots down"

Instead, Arizona had life and a chance to tie the game or take the lead. And with York being the hot hand at the time, it seemed like the right call to hand him the ball.

Yet, York has struggled in late-game situations this season, so perhaps it wasn't a clear-cut choice. Against this same Cal team in January, York was given the final shot opportunity, and he lost control of the ball and ultimately had to force up a desperation shot as time expired. It went off the mark.

Last week versus Colorado, York tried to create space from his defender for a chance to tie the game, but he wound up dribbling the ball out of bounds. Then, just a game later against Utah, York was the victim of another late-game mishap. Utah point guard Brandon Taylor shook York and drained the game-sealing 3-pointer as York tumbled to ground after losing his footing.

The late-game miscues haven't been easy for York to swallow, but they've also served as motivation.

"I’ve been in the gym for countless hours everyday after the Utah and Colorado losses when I played so poorly and couldn’t get it done for my team," he said. "I went to [the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium] right after we got off the plane… and I was shooting around. [I] just wanted to be by myself. I had to understand that I play this game because I love it. It’s not a job right now. And I had to find that love for it again. I think I kind of lost it after that last trip."

And so when another potential game-winning opportunity emerged, York wasn't going to pass up the chance to vindicate himself.

"As a basketball player and as a captain on this team, being here for four years, I want to have the ball in my hands," York said. "I know I haven’t done a great job finishing out games but at the end of the day, I’m going to take the good with the bad."

And this time, the 'good' is what Arizona got. York ran off four different screens, found some space on the wing, and sank the go-ahead 3 with 19 seconds left to play.

"We had just ran that [play] twice previously," York mentioned. "And I had just made those two 3s, so coach decided to draw up a play in the timeout and instead of going all the way off the three screens, I was going to off two and cutback and go off another two."

"His shots, how difficult they were, how clutch they were, I mean you’re going to watch a lot of basketball games, but you’re not going to see an ending like that very often," Miller said. "It was amazing."

It certainly was and the Wildcats' defense, now backed by a one-point lead, got one final stop and the comeback was complete. York, two days before his final home game as a Wildcat, was the hero. And while the senior has won plenty of games at Arizona, this one was special.

"For me, this would probably be number one," he said. "[It's] a very hostile team that we lost to last time and I missed the game-winning shot. So I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder coming in."

York walked off the court with both arms in the air, soaking in every moment. He had redeemed himself. The late-game failures and the criticism that came along with them made this breakthrough that much sweeter.

And his coach, who frequently praises York for sticking at Arizona and earning these types of moments instead of taking the easy way out by transferring, couldn't help but smile when talking about York's big night.

"I’ve never been more happy for a kid than I am right now for Gabe," Sean Miller said after the game. "Because, as a freshman, he didn’t play, and he stayed. As a sophomore, he accepted his role on a great team. He did not get enough credit for the role he had on last year’s team, and now it’s not always fun when you’re the hunted."

Miller continued, "It’s not always fun when you’re the guy who shoots the ball at the end of the game. There’s a lot of responsibility that you feel and to watch him bounce back from last week’s performance and do what he did tonight in the second half, he deserves a lot of credit. He put us on his back and we left with an incredibly hard-fought win."

As the postseason approaches and the margin for error gets thinner, more 'hard-fought wins' will be needed. And it's likely that Arizona will find itself in another close-game situation, needing someone to knock down a clutch shot. If that's the case, Miller will likely once again turn to York to take on that responsibility.

And, despite what critics say, York -- taking the good with the bad -- will be ready to fire away.

"I’m going to be ready for my team with whatever they need me to do," he said. "I’m going to be ultra-confident no matter what happens. I know I’ve had a couple of bad run-ins with close games, but it seems like it’s turning around right now."

You can follow this author on Twitter @RKelapireUA