When they take the court at the Honda Center Saturday evening against the Wisconsin Badgers, the Arizona Wildcats could be 40 minutes of basketball away from their first Final Four appearance since 2001.
That season, they lost to Duke by a score of 82-72 in the national championship game.
And while the Wildcats have had some successful seasons since then, they have not been able to claw their way back into the Final Four.
But they’ve been close. Very close. Painstakingly close.
Arizona has made three separate trips to the Elite 8 over the last 13 years, each time falling in heartbreaking fashion.
Here’s a recap:
2003: Kansas 78, Arizona 75
The top-seeded Wildcats and second-seeded Kansas Jayhawks battled throughout the entire game, with Arizona being forced to make up some steep deficits throughout. They were able to do so many times, and even had the lead late in the second half. But they fell just a bit short.
Jason Gardner scored 23 points for Arizona while Luke Walton chipped in 18, while Rick Anderson and Hassan Adams each scored 11. Channing Frye notched six points, Salim Stoudamire was held to just four points and Andre Igoudala tallied only two.
But it was Kansas’ Kirk Hinrich who was the difference maker, scoring 28 points and blocking the first of two three-point attempts from Gardner as time expired to hang on for the win.
2005: Illinois 90, Arizona 89
On a pain scale from 1 to 10, this one ranks around a 174.
Simply put, this was a game Arizona should have won, even though it was basically a home game for Illinois.
The Wildcats, the region’s third seed, were up most of the second half against number one seeded Illinois. And with just four minutes left, Arizona held what appeared to be a comfortable 15-point lead.
Then. It. All. Fell. Apart.
Led by guards Deron Williams and Luther Head and aided by some sloppy play by Arizona, Illinois finished the half on a 20-5 run, sending the game into overtime, where Hassan Adams’ three-point shot misfired as time expired.
Channing Frye finished with a game-high 24 points for Arizona, while Adams scored 21 and Ivan Radenovic poured in 13. Five Wildcats reached double figures in the loss.
But the difference was Illinois’ backcourt of Williams and Head, which along with Dee Brown combined for 59 points and 19 assists that led the Illini to the comeback and eventually the win.
2011: UConn 65, Arizona 63
To be honest, neither team was expected to make it this far.
Arizona was seeded fifth for a reason, and UConn was third. The Wildcats survived a first-round scare against Memphis and needed a miracle rally to knock off Texas in the second before destroying Duke in the Sweet 16. And if not for a ridiculous run through the Big East Tournament that year, the Huskies would have been seeded much lower, though their tournament path was a bit smoother than their opponent’s.
This was a game where the best players from each team shined, as Derrick Williams and Kemba Walker each led their teams with 20 points. However, foul trouble limited Williams, the future second-overall pick in the NBA Draft, to just 26 minutes.
Arizona got out of the gates quickly and took the lead, but UConn fought back and had the edge at the half. The lead was up to eight with 11 minutes to play, but from there the Wildcats fought back and eventually took the lead, going up by three with six-and-a-half minutes left.
The Huskies didn’t go away, though, and not only regained the lead, but went up by six with just two-and-a-half minutes left to play. The teams traded baskets from there, with Kyle Fogg and Jamelle Horne making threes for Arizona and Kemba Walker hitting a jumper for UConn, which set the stage for an amazing finish.
Down two with the ball and 18 seconds to play, Arizona turned to Derrick Williams, whose three-point attempt missed. Fogg got the offensive rebound and kicked it out to the senior Horne, whose three-point shot looked true but it bounced off the rim to seal the win for UConn.