TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona senior point guard T.J. McConnell broke down as he walked off the court into the arms of coach Sean Miller. Sophomore forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had to be consoled by teammates after he made his way to the bench.
For the second straight season, the Wildcats came up just short of the Final Four, losing to the same team again, no less.
Winning a national championship is the only real goal at a program like Arizona’s and the pain was visible up and down the bench after the Wildcats’ 85-78 loss to Wisconsin in the West Regional final Saturday night.
No title, but there were 34 wins, a third trip to the NCAA Tournament’s regional final in four years and a top-5 ranking — the kind of season most programs dream to have once a decade, much less do it on a consistent basis.
“We lost to Wisconsin in two hard-fought battles in the Elite Eight and if that’s a problem, I think you know what you can do,” Miller said.
Arizona lost Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson to the NBA from after last year’s team finished a few seconds short of the Final Four, yet expectations went up in the desert.
The Wildcats had a strong core back from the regional final team, including McConnell, Hollis-Jefferson, Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York. They also had versatile forward Brandon Ashley back after he missed the 2014 postseason with a broken foot.
Add to that another strong recruiting class by Miller, headed by ultra-talented forward Stanley Johnson, and Arizona was a popular pick to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2001.
The Wildcats looked the part most of the season, winning the early season Maui Invitational, stretching their non-conference winning streak to 39 games and their home winning streak to 38 games.
Arizona had a few slipups to unranked teams, losing to UNLV, rival Arizona State and Oregon State, but bounced back each time and was playing its best basketball at the end of the season.
The Wildcats won the Pac-12 Tournament with a dominating performance against Oregon, then opened the NCAA Tournament with convincing wins over Texas Southern and Ohio State.
Arizona followed with a grinding victory over Xavier in the Sweet 16, setting up the regional final rematch it had been waiting for since losing to Wisconsin in overtime last season.
The Wildcats looked good through the first half, but the Badgers put on an incredible shooting display in the second half, most notably Sam Dekker, who scored 20 of his 27 points in the final 20 minutes. Dekker hit all five of his 3-point shots in the half, including a spirit-crusher with 17 seconds left and the shot clocking winding down.
“Sam Dekker pretty much just crushed our dreams with that shot,” said McConnell, who had 14 points in his final college game. “We did a good job on him in the first half. He showed his true self in the second half. He played like an NBA player.”
Arizona has a few who play like that, too, and could lose them before next season.
Johnson came to the desert and was expected to follow the same one-and-done route Gordon took and there’s no reason to think he won’t. The 6-foot-7 forward led Arizona with 13.8 points per game and has an NBA-ready body, not to mention game.
Hollis-Jefferson, the Wildcats’ energy piston and defensive stopper, considered leaving after his freshman season and could be a high draft pick if he goes this year.
Ashley also could look at bypassing his senior season, as could the 7-foot Tarczewski.
The Wildcats certainly will be without McConnell, the give-it-all-he’s-got point guard who is out of eligibility after transferring from Duquesne three years ago.
Whoever does come back, figure on Arizona being among the elite programs again. There’s still a strong core, another off-the-chart recruiting class is coming in and Miller seems to find a way to coax his teams into deep March runs every season.
“Maybe the fifth time that I get back here, maybe I’ll break through,” Miller said.
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.