Arizona Basketball: How a Road Trip To Tulsa Turned Unforgettable (Part 2)

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Arizona Basketball: How a Road Trip To Tulsa Turned Unforgettable (Part 2)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Afternoon of March 18

Following the end of Arizona's 77-75 victory over the Memphis Tigers, my dad and I head to the local DoubleTree Hotel where the team and majority of Arizona fans are staying.

As soon as I walk into the hotel, I see red and blue balloons everywhere, as well as an inflatable basket with Arizona's logo on the backboard. I instantly feel bad for any Memphis fans who are staying there, as seeing all the navy blue and cardinal red must add insult to injury.

After relaxing in our hotel room for a little while, my dad decides to go get the car, which was still parked blocks away. While leaving the hotel, the entire Arizona team walks in and he holds the door open for all the players.

The last guy from the team to walk in is Derrick Williams, who was kind enough to pose for a picture. Minutes later, my dad sends a text to me that reads, "Just got my pic taken with D-Will."

I immediately call him, in disbelief that I missed an opportunity to meet my favorite player. He then explains what happened and all I can do is hate myself for being too lazy to leave the comforts of the hotel room.

For dinner that night, we get take-out from a Mexican restaurant that specializes in salmon tacos. However, the tacos can't even be compared to the Mexican food found in Tucson.

I quickly became friends with Jim and Molly Hambacher.

 

March 19, First day of Third Round

I sleep in until 9:00 AM and I quickly have an urge for something good to eat. Fortunately, the DoubleTree has a great kitchen that offers anything from Belgian waffles to the "Bear Down" Buger (they probably took off the "Bear Down" after the Arizona fans left).

We are staying on the fifteenth floor so in order to get down to the lobby, we have to pass through nearly every level of the hotel.

At the eighth floor, the elevator stops. I naturally move towards where my dad is standing, in order to allow whoever gets on the elevator as much space as they might need.

The door opens and in comes a guy who must be at least 6'8''. Following him are two more young men who appear they could play basketball.

It takes me a few seconds to realize who they all are and by the time I wrap my ahead around the fact that I'm standing in an elevator with three Arizona basketball players, Williams walks in.

My natural instincts take over as I ask the All-American for a picture. At the same second, I reach into my pocket and I am relieved to feel my iPhone, which I quickly hand to my dad.

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
Charles Barkley provides great opinions on the NCAA Tournament.

The picture didn't come out great and my eyes light up both figuratively and literally, or at least that is how it looks in the photo.

As Arizona beat writer Bruce Pascoe later reaffirmed, Williams is very nice and friendly for being a future NBA lottery pick. My dad even made the comment that it looked like we were best friends by the way he genuinely smiled.

If my trip was forced to end as soon as I reached the lobby, I would have been satisfied. After all, I had already gotten to see Arizona win a remarkable game and I had met someone who will one day be even more respected and appreciated than he already is.

Saturday afternoon, I go to a place called Billy Ray's Barbecue. I order a full rack of ribs while my dad tries their highly regarded catfish. The food is delicious and we even get a full pound of pork to go.

The rest of the day is spent watching the NCAA Tournament. I begin to love listening to Charles Barkley's opinionated analysis of each game. He also earns brownie points with me by picking Arizona to go all the way to the national championship game, probably because he lives in Phoenix.

That night, we head back down to the hotel lobby where we find some Arizona fans but even more people wearing Kansas shirts. The Jayhawks have perhaps the most loyal fan base in the entire country and it seemed like everywhere you looked in Tulsa, there was someone with KU colors on.

Nick Laham/Getty Images
Butler's Matt Howard makes the game winning free throw.

Arizona, Kansas and even a few Texas fans, are all gathered around the televisions to watch the final seconds of the Butler-Pittsburgh game.

It appears Butler is going to win until they commit a meaningless foul with two seconds remaining. In result, Pitt gets to go to the free throw line with a chance to either tie or win the game.

Gilbert Brown makes the first free throw but misses the second. For whatever reason, Nasir Robinson fouls Matt Howard over 90 feet away from the basket where Howard is trying to shoot into.

We all erupt in cheers as Butler's Howard sinks the winning free throw and sends the Bulldogs back to the Sweet 16 while eliminating the top seed Panthers.

The feeling of unity between all three schools' fans is incredible, but I know that come tomorrow afternoon, Longhorn and Wildcat fans will be each others biggest enemies, if only for a couple hours.

 

March 20, Second Day of Third Round

Sunday morning, I sleep in until nearly 11:00 AM after a long night of watching NCAA Tournament games. We eat breakfast at a local place called the Blue Dome Dinner and while their pancakes are filling, it is no longer time to focus on food.

Arizona Athletic Director Greg Byrne was recently recognized in the 40 under 40 list by SportsBusiness Daily.

In just a matter of hours, Arizona will be facing off against Texas in a game that will send both teams back home, but the winner will fly to Anaheim a few days later.

At 3:15, there is a "send off," where some of the Arizona fans gather around the team as they walk onto the team bus.

There are no more than about 50 Wildcat fans there but when you add in the pep band and cheerleaders, there are more than enough people to see the team for the last time before they head off to the game.

Following the send off, I meet Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne. He too is a very nice, especially considering he went to school at Arizona State.

A few minutes later, Byrne enters the elevator we are taking back up to our room and he gets to know me a little bit better.

After we get to the room, I grab some pom-poms and the tickets, and we then walk to the BOK Center and are one of the first Arizona fans in the building. With lots of time on our hands, my dad comes up with the idea of trying to meet Bruce Pascoe.

Throughout the season, I emailed Pascoe any questions I had about Arizona and he always got back to me quickly. He would also give me feedback on the articles I sent him, something I still deeply appreciate.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Back in his college days, Steve Kerr led Arizona to a Final Four appearance.

To me, Pascoe has the best job in the world. He gets to follow an elite college basketball program on every road trip and write about each game. While sports writing jobs don't often pay that well, the games he gets to watch first hand must make up for at least part of the financial setbacks of being a sportswriter.

Basically, meeting Pascoe gave me a similar feeling to how a young singer might feel when they meet Paul McCartney or when a high-school basketball player talks to someone playing in the NBA.

Although I mostly listen to Pascoe and my dad talk about the profession that I will one day hopefully enter, the experience was still something that I will never forget.

When we return to our seats, an Arizona fan comes up and tells us that right after the names of the players are read, the band and the fans will do a call and response based off of how the McKale Center's PA guy used to say Steve Kerr's name. Kerr is doing color commentary for this game and hopefully the cheer will catch his attention.

Shortly after tip off, the band members yell, "Steveee Kerrrrr." We then repeat the name in the exaggerated style, but due to the chants of the Longhorn fans, there was no way Kerr could hear us.

Texas starts the game off well but it is not long before the Wildcats start nailing three-pointers. Jordin Mayes and Brandon Lavender both hit a pair of shots from outside, and Fogg, who was ice cold against Memphis, also makes a three early in the game.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Cory Joseph and Texas came up just short against Arizona.

Derrick Williams is nearly non-existent in the first half, going 0-6 from the field but did score three points from the charity stripe. Arizona goes into halftime with an 11 point lead but they know that Texas will probably heat up in the second half.

In just a matter of one minute, 49 seconds, Texas cuts the halftime lead of 11 down to just five points. From there, the teams seem to trade baskets for a while but the Longhorns eventually make their run.

With 4:30 to go, the Wildcats hold a 65-60 lead over Texas. But in the next two minutes, the Longhorns end up taking the lead for the first time and with 2:05 remaining, they are winning 67-66.

A Cory Joseph foul sends Williams to the free throw line where he only makes one of two. The game is tied at 67 all with two minutes left.

After an Arizona turnover, Joseph makes a jumper to give Texas a two point lead with only 1:07 remaining in the game.

The next Arizona possession features numerous offensive rebounds but the Wildcats can't score. Texas' Jordan Hamilton finally gets a defensive rebound but calls a timeout instead of letting Arizona foul him.

With 14 seconds left, the Longhorns and their fans feel pretty good about their chances. They are one clean in-bounds away from forcing Arizona to send them to the free throw line.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Sean Miller is establishing a new winning tradition at Arizona.

The rest is history. Texas gets called for a controversial five second violation. Derrick Williams makes a surreal shot while getting fouled. Of course he makes the free throw to push Arizona ahead by a point.

J'Covan Brown's final second drive comes up short and Arizona wins. Perhaps the best moment is when Arizona's Kyryl Natyazhko waves a Hook 'em Horns sign into the CBS cameras.

While all this is going on, I am high-fiving all the Arizona fans except the Hambachers, who needed to leave early to catch the bus in time.

There is no definition of March Madness but if there was one, it would go something like this: "Win and you and your fans get to live another game. Lose and your season is over."

As an Arizona fan, I have experienced as many NCAA Tournament heartbreaks as anyone else. With the exception of 1997, the Wildcats never seemed to be able to put all the pieces together when it mattered most.

But this weekend marked a new era. After all, it was the first time Sean Miller had coached Arizona in the NCAA Tournament. It was also the first time I had ever seen them play in the Big Dance.

Who knows how far this Arizona team can go. Behind Derrick Williams, they have the ability to beat any team left in this tournament, including the Duke Blue Devils.

But no matter how far the Cats do end up going, the most memorable games for me will be the two I got to witness in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

There are not many trips someone goes on in life, where they don't know the exact endpoint of it before they leave home. This was one of those trips.

March Madness does not go hand in hand with flight or hotel arrangements. Instead, March Madness is full of surprises that no one could have ever imagined.

For example, I never thought I would meet Williams and Pascoe when I left Saint Louis early Friday morning. I certainly never imagined I would become friends with Molly Hambacher before I sat down in my seat to watch Arizona face Memphis.

Yet it all happened.

March Madness is the one thing that everyone can count on each year that will give their life a sense of unpredictability. That, I believe, is what is so great about the NCAA Tournament, and that is what a three day trip to Tulsa taught me.

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