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Adversity has made Arizona ‘tougher, stronger’ as the postseason approaches

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The Wildcats have gone through a lot lately, but now they are back at full strength and ready to make a run

NCAA Basketball: MD Baltimore Cty at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

After finishing class Thursday, Dusan Ristic anxiously walked across campus to McKale Center, scooted down the ramp into the bowels of the arena, and whipped open the door of the Arizona Wildcats’ locker room.

He will never forget the scene.

“Everybody was smiling, everybody was happy,” he said. “We were just excited to have our coach back.”

Relieved, too.

When head coach Sean Miller stepped away from his team last Saturday after an ESPN report alleged he discussed a $100,000 payment for Deandre Ayton, Ristic and the Wildcats weren’t sure if he was ever going to come back.

They were in the dark just like everyone else.

“I was just hoping for the best,” Ristic said. “I was hoping that he was going to return.”

Ristic knew there was a chance he wouldn’t.

“I was sad, and I mean I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “Coach Miller’s somebody who was my coach for the past four years, I’ve been through a lot of positive and negative things with him. I grew as a player on the court and off the court. And if he wasn’t on the sidelines (Thursday) or Saturday I think it would affect me a lot.”

Ristic is glad he won’t have to end his senior year like that.

Just after 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, the door of the McKale Center press room cracked open and Miller sauntered in donning a red Arizona polo.

He read a prepared statement, no questions asked.

Miller vehemently denied the ESPN report, calling it “inaccurate, false, and defamatory.” He asserted that he has never knowingly broken NCAA rules — or ever will — and that he was “sickened” by all the negative attention the program has received lately.

Then he uttered his final remarks.

“I look forward to coaching this outstanding team as we seek to capture a Pac-12 regular season championship this week. I now intend to turn my focus to basketball, and our players, and this team,” he said.

About three hours later, UA president Robert C. Robbins and Dave Heeke jointly supported Miller after meeting with the Arizona Board of Regents.

Miller was officially back, and his reaction was apparently similar to his players’.

“He was extremely excited,” Ristic said. “I’ve never seen him like that before.”

It was understandable because Thursday was also the first time Miller had been with his team in any capacity since last Saturday.

He watched the Wildcats lose to Oregon on TV — which he unsurprisingly described as “tough” — and remained away from practice Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and even Thursday when Arizona held its shootaround before its game against Stanford.

Miller said he was not involved at all in game-planning, and hinted that that wasn’t necessarily his choice even though him stepping away was described as a mutual decision.

“I did what I was supposed to do,” he said of his hiatus.

Assistants Lorenzo Romar, Mark Phelps, and Austin Carroll were the ones running the show in Miller’s stead as the University decided the head coach’s fate.

Not much changed, though, Ristic said. It was still Miller’s team even if he wasn’t there.

“I think Coach Romar and Coach Phelps did a great job of riding the team this last week few days,” Ristic said. “We didn’t do anything different than what we usually do with Coach Miller. Again, we were hoping that he’s going to come back and that’s why we didn’t change anything.”

It felt a lot different from Miller’s perspective, to be sure. He joked that being a head coach is “actually a pretty good job if you only show up to the game.”

“But we run the same system,” he said on a serious note. “(The rest of the staff) kept me abreast, especially (Thursday). We met for an hour, two hours. Almost as if we’re preparing for a quick turnaround.”

And once Thursday’s game started, normalcy returned. Miller was his usual fiery self on the sideline, and Arizona beat Stanford for the 17th straight time to clinch a share of the Pac-12 title.

“We’re at home and we were playing for a lot,” Miller said. “I thought we had a focused approach leading up to the game. There was no member of our team or organization that doesn’t realize the meaning of winning a regular season championship. Once we were all here together it was business as usual.”

Miller received a trio of standing ovations from the UA faithful throughout the night. Two before the game, and one at the start of the second half. Fans chanted his name and held up signs in support.

Miller waved in appreciation.

“I really didn’t know what to think about it other than it’s just very, very emotional,” he said. “Tucson and our fans, they’ve always been the very, very best to my family and myself. They’ve supported our basketball program like no other and to see them do that was very emotional, and it was something I’ll never, ever forget.”

Allonzo Trier was a fan favorite, too. The junior’s PED suspension was lifted just two hours before tip off. He had won another appeal, and Arizona now had its coach and leading scorer back.

“We had our fingers crossed and hoping that it would go that way,” Miller said. “I think we’re all really elated for him and for us that it did.”

Trier scored 18 points on 10 shots and made key free throws down the stretch, despite missing the last two games.

His impact was felt early and often, sinking a 3 to give Arizona a 5-0 lead in the opening minute. He turned to the crowd and hollered, “I’m back!” afterward.

“I cannot imagine what was going through his mind before tonight’s game, because he didn’t know if he was going to play maybe two hours before the game,” Ristic said. “So, it was really tough for him, but then when we got the news that he’s cleared to play ... that brought more energy to our team. And that’s what helped us win tonight.”

Now, Arizona is tasked with sustaining that newfound energy.

When Miller first addressed the team after his return, the conversation centered on re-focusing after a turbulent week.

Control the things we control, Miller called it — tuning out the outside noise, trusting each other, and using the adversity to come closer together so they can play their best basketball down the stretch.

“A stick-to-it (mentality),” Miller said. “A family in sports that has to rely on each other. That’s what we talked about.”

And this family has gone through a lot together since it first assembled over the summer.

Let’s start in August. While on an exhibition tour in Spain, the Wildcats were caught in Barcelona as the city was the victim of a terrorist attack. Walk-on Kory Jones tore his ACL on that trip, too.

A month later, assistant coach Book Richardson was arrested amid the college basketball recruiting scandal, and Rawle Alkins broke his foot.

Two months after that, Arizona lost three games in three days in the Bahamas, falling out of the Top 25 for the first time in 100 weeks.

Yet, all those things pale in comparison to losing Trier and Miller in the same week, all while being in the spotlight of college basketball’s biggest controversy.

But now Arizona has all its pieces back as the season is about to hit its utmost importance — and a chip on its shoulder.

It’s not just the Wildcats versus their opponents anymore. It’s them versus everybody.

“I think we can flip the story, we can make a run in the tournament and then we change the whole situation,” Ristic said.

“Like two days ago everybody was against us. The whole nation, even some of you guys (in the media), were against us. And I think we’re going to use it as a motivation. And from this point on, I think the whole thing made us stronger, much tougher as a team. And I think we’re going to try to do something special now.”


Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire