“It was the best of times, it was…” well, it was really just the best of times. For the last four years, I have had the luxury to take in numerous Arizona Wildcats games, both inside and outside of the ZonaZoo.
I have shed tears for both the good and the bad, hugged complete strangers, expressed my fair share of criticism, but in the end, always had the programs back. Aside from the ‘Seven Seconds or Less Suns,’ this was the basketball team I grew up with.
I grew up in a house where Arizona Wildcats basketball was not at the forefront of either of my parents minds, which meant I had to make the effort to follow the team. We also did not have cable, so the only way I stayed current with Arizona was on the radio. Side note: Thank you Brian Jeffries for being the Voice of Arizona and allowing me to follow this team from a kid to now.
Both of my parents went to the University of Dayton, so U of A athletics did not find its way into the family watch list. In the spring of 1997, I was nearly five years old which meant I did not have enough cognitive awareness to know pandemonium had engulfed Tucson.
However, by 2001, I was nine and old enough to begin following college basketball. But, as most 9 year olds remember and parents can attest to, bed times are important. Due to this, I was unable to watch the end of the National Championship game, only finding out in the morning the depressing news.
If there is one point where you can mark down where it all began, the love, admiration, and loyalty, April 2nd is the date.
I had never attended a game in McKale Center so as it came time to finally walk through the ZonaZoo entrance for the first time against Idaho State, I did not know what to expect. To this day, I really do not know what to expect and that is a testament to what the ZonaZoo has become. What I can say is it gave me goosebumps. Seeing almost 15,000 fans decked out in red and blue, how could it not?
Freshman year focused on two events, which put Arizona back on the map after years of uncertainty. The first was February 19 and the second March 24, 2011.
“The Block,” under the cover of a white out against Washington, was the first time all four grade levels had a chance to let it all out. I have never heard an arena so loud, for so long, in my four years.
Luckily, though, that game was only the beginning of a great season and four years.
Every Arizona fan, anywhere in the world, will be able to tell you the exact spot where they were watching the Sweet Sixteen when Derrick Williams rose up, soared, and dunked the ball on Duke. The play was a symbol of the season. It was out of the blue, wonderful, and program changing. In the short term though, the play told Duke their March Madness ride was over.
The ride Arizona took us on in March of 2011 was magical, unforeseen, and sadly also cut short.
I still remember the excitement going to my first Arizona game as a child. It is a little foggy what he exact season was, but I’m 90 percent sure it was at Arizona State during the Lute years. As always, it was pro UA crowd and per usual, UofA won.
Nothing seems to have changed over the years.
I also had the pleasure, thanks to my grandma who is an Illinois fan, to see redemption in 2006 as UA took down the Illini in a “neutral” site game. That was the first game I truly saw how Arizona was Wildcat Country. Even though the game did little in terms of revenge, a win still helped us battered fans.
As Lute walked onto the court, the arena shook with “Luuuuuuuuutttteee” and again, I had goosebumps.
Two years later, in the same arena, Arizona took down fourth ranked Gonzaga in another “neutral” court game which again showed Arizona was Wildcat Country.
My final game before arriving in Tucson was again at Arizona State. Seven of my friends (5 of which were either going to ASU the next year or rooted for them) piled into my parents station wagon and we headed to Tempe.
As usual, another Arizona victory.
Seeing my friends exit Wells Fargo before the game ended as I stood there chanting A-R-I-Z-O-N-A, will always be a shining moment in my book.
It took until sophomore year against Oregon, for me to witness my first Arizona loss in person. This spanned the four aforementioned games, the entire 2010-2011 home schedule, and seven home games of the 2012 season (due to Thanksgiving break, I was absent for the SDSU loss).
That personal streak however, was the high point of the season.
Arizona, left with a Derrick Williams sized hole, found itself out of the NCAA tournament. The team, as motivated as I felt lying on the couch with a bad case of mono, fell to Belmont in the first round of the NIT.
Tucson knew it was only an aberration.
Arizona does not rebuild. We reload.
Reloading we did.
Junior year saw the emergence of the ‘Cardiac Cats.’ It also saw Arizona rise to fourth in the nation behind a 14-0 start, one that was full of excitement and periodic trips to the emergency room for heart evaluations.
12.12.12 was one of those days Wildcat fans cannot simply forget. It started off with a mind-blowing comeback in against UNLV in the New Mexico Bowl, only to have it topped mere hours later in McKale.
Even though the ZonaZoo pass did not cover the duel with 5th ranked Florida, McKale still sold out and featured the second best game of my tenure. Thanks to Mark Lyons, a player who held the biggest ‘Love/Hate’ relationship for any player in recent memory. He gave Wildcat nation a day they will always cherish.
The ‘Cardiac Cats’ though, would not be contained.
Heartbeats stopped both on Christmas night and January 3rd. Nick Johnson, trying his best to give Wildcat Nation a holiday to remember, swatted away a possible game winning shot against San Diego State to keep the winning streak alive. Nine days later, Colorado’s Sabatino Chen learned the lesson of cutting his fingernails before a game and Tucson cheered the referees for the first and only time.
This season, just as two years earlier, ended much too soon. A shot by LaQuinton Ross stunned and subdued every Wildcat on planet earth.
Even while I sat in the conference room in Arbol de la Vida, unsure of what I just witnessed, I knew one thing.
Arizona does not rebuild. We reload.
Senior year, where ever you choose to attend school, is a memorable one. At a big time power conference school however, the memories can exude into unforgettable moments.
A trip to Vegas with my brother and close friends for Arizona vs UNLV started the year off strong and we knew it wouldn’t be our last trip to Sin City.
Even though the football season produced a winning record, Arizona basketball is the first and foremost.
This was the year. We had Reloaded with a capital ‘R’ and the NCAA site makers had blessed us with a near perfect location schedule in the NCAA tournament. A number one seed would allow to team to never leave California until the Final Four in Dallas North Texas.
This was the year.
We had everything needed for a National Championship run. Arizona possessed the biggest front line in college basketball. We had a true point guard for the first time under Coach Sean Miller. We had one of the most athletic freshmen to ever set foot on campus. And last, but surely not least, we had a veteran and team leader in Nick Johnson. The pieces were there.
This was the year.
Twenty-one straight wins, including statement wins over Duke in Madison Square Garden, a whiteout win (finally!) over UNLV, a nail biter over Michigan in Ann Arbor, and a win over rival UCLA sent expectations sky high and rightfully so.
This was the year.
In one awkward landing however, everything changed. Brandon Ashley was out for the season, a lack of a bench, an unforeseen problem until then, became an Achilles heel and all seemed lost.
All seemed lost for about two weeks.
After a few weeks of juggling line ups and figuring out who fit where, Arizona was back to its old ways with blowouts over Colorado, California, and Stanford. This team was not giving up because, you guessed it, this was their year.
As was the plan all along, I, along with the same group from Vegas in September, jumped into my car (less crowded but still weighed down to the max- sorry dad) and headed to the Pac 12 tournament.
Due to some weird technicality at the MGM, the tickets we bought online were no longer valid, but don’t you worry, we ended up seeing both the semifinal and championship games for free, the last one from row five. For the kids reading this, it really does pay to network at your school. Trust me.
This was definitely our year.
Or we thought.
Even though Vegas was Wildcat Country, and I’m not being biased here, Arizona represented 70 percent or more of the MGM arena, the team found itself in one of its offensive funks and could not pull out a tight and exciting PAC-12 championship game.
But it didn’t matter, we told ourselves, we had the number one seed in the west. And that we did.
The Wildcats had little trouble with Weber State in the opening round and even less trouble with Gonzaga to reach the Sweet 16.
This is where the fun always starts. With only two wins separating the program from the Final Four, blood pressure and nerves were exceeding safe levels.
Arizona, just as they had all season, relied on staunch defense to edge San Diego State, in a game where Nick Johnson did not score for the first 37 and a half minutes, but somehow ended up with 15 points. I still haven’t wrapped my head around that one, but that’s for another day.
The entire day leading up to the SDSU game, as well as the next 16 hours afterwards, my roommate and I were attempting to pin point the best time to purchase tickets to the Elite 8.
Our first benchmark was half time. That came and went as UofA was losing. The second benchmark was the 10 minute mark. That also came and went as it was still too close. The next came as the game had ended, but tickets had magically jumped nearly 50 dollars and me, the economics guy, said lets trust the free market.
And oh was the free market nice to us.
Finally on Friday around noon we pulled the trigger on reasonably priced, but oxygen tank necessary tickets.
Nothing is better than going with your roommate and fraternity brothers on an impromptu road trip to California to see your team play for a shot in the Final Four. I swear I have never been in a shorter seven hour car ride than the one from Tucson to Anaheim.
The game was simply the most memorable, heart racing, exciting, and any other word you want to throw in. At one point I even tried to take a picture of the big screen, but couldn’t get the phone to focus as my hands were shaking so much.
And then that was it.
The team Coach Sean Miller called “the best team I have ever been a part of” was done. As I looked down upon the court from the apex of the Honda Center, I did not register that this was the last game I’d witness as a University of Arizona student.
Four years of basketball from the confines of the ZonaZoo, surrounded by greatest fans in the country, was finished. Four years of friendships gained and strengthened through attending games. And lastly, four years of memories which have made my time on this campus unforgettable.
This was supposed to be our year.
But remember, Arizona does not rebuild. We reload.