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Arizona’s T.J. McConnell: The giver says goodbye

Be a fan of T.J. McConnell. Or don’t be.

But never say he didn’t give his program everything he had.

The senior point guard played his last game as an Arizona Wildcat Saturday night, in a crushing Elite 8 loss to Wisconsin.

There wasn’t much the ‘Cats could do to staunch 79 percent shooting, 10 3-pointers and a 55-point half from the Badgers, and within the record-breaking scoring McConnell’s effort — 14 points, five assists — was lost.

Still, he apologized to his head coach, Sean Miller, in a tearful hug as the Badgers sealed it in the game’s final moments.

“I just came off the floor and apologized that I couldn’t get him to a Final Four,” he said, “So, I mean, that guy right there is like my dad, so I just felt down that I couldn’t get him there.”

You almost want to shake him, or hug him, anything to make the dejected, sobbing kid really hear you when you say, “it’s not your fault!”

But McConnell probably wouldn’t believe you because giving to his team, to every single player who has ever caught a pass from him or followed his example, has been his raison d’etre for years at Arizona. And if this team, often lauded as the best Miller had ever coached and the best McConnell has ever led, couldn’t get to the championship then whose fault was it?

“What do you say to a person that gives everything they have to a program?” Freshman Stanley Johnson said to the Tucson Daily Star postgame. “We’re short again. What do you say to a guy like that? I wish I could’ve done more to help.”

Others echoed the sentiment.

But how do you help the guy who’s always there to help?

The Wildcats saw it time and again — McConnell would bail out a sometimes-stagnant offense with his slingshot passes and even, as a “last resort” if nobody else was open, shoot the J himself.

The guy whose Twitter handle is literally “iPass4Zona” had five double-digit assist performances this year, and averaged 6.3 per game, his highest in his two years with the Wildcats. In the tournament, he averaged five assists and 15.5 points per game — a scoring value 5.1 points higher than his season average.

His best performance in the tournament came, of course, when Arizona was struggling. McConnell, alongside Gabe York, managed to break Ohio State’s zone and shelled out 19 points, six assists, six rebounds and five steals to help save the ‘Cats in the Sweet 16.

Further back, his stifling defense shut down many an opposing point guard, including Pac-12 Player of the Year Joseph Young twice in regular-season routs of Oregon.

McConnell’s dedication and determination to help his team succeed goes back much further than that, of course.

“T.J. McConnell and Rondae (Hollis-Jefferson), the two guys that were up here, they’re the greatest kids that I’ve ever coached,” said Miller. “They’ve done everything that we’ve asked. They play so hard every day that what they do becomes contagious, and it goes throughout the locker room.”

It’s hard to lose, harder to lose to a familiar foe and harder still to finish your collegiate career with heartbreak. Heck, look at McConnell’s face. The weight of the loss; the moment of feeling like he could have possibly let somebody down, it’s all etched there and it hurts to see it.

But according to Miller, he didn’t disappoint anyone.

“With the way the world is today, people will jump all over us for losing in the Elite Eight, and I just want to protect our players,” he said.

“Because if you’re T.J. McConnell and you’ve won 69 games in two years and you never lost a home game and you’ve gone to back-to-back Elite Eights, no kid should walk out of here with anything other than their head held high.”