Arizona defeats Florida Atlantic 75-62
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP)—Down on the bench, interim coach Russ Pennell patrolled the area where Lute Olson presided for 24 seasons.
Up in the McKale Center grandstand, there were some 1,500 empty seats.
On the scoreboard, though, the result was familiar.
Chase Budinger scored 21 points and Nic Wise added 19 points and nine assists, and Arizona opened the post-Lute era with a 75-62 victory over Florida Atlantic in the NIT Season Tip-Off on Monday night.
“It’s big,” Budinger said. “A lot of people had doubts about us. This was a game to kind of show people that we could still play.”
Arizona advanced to a second-round game on Tuesday night against UAB, which beat Santa Clara 64-61.
The 74-year-old Olson suddenly retired in October, ending his long and glorious reign in the desert. Stunned by Olson’s announcement—and the subsequent news that he had suffered a stroke—the players had been looking forward to this game, if only because it signaled a return to the normal routine.
“We just wanted to come out and make a big impact in the first game,” Wise said.
The Wildcats (1-0) fell behind 15-7 before rallying to take a 24-22 lead on Budinger’s driving dunk with 6 minutes to play in the first half. The Wildcats didn’t trail again.
“Chase is our leader,” Wise said. “We look to him.”
Budinger isn’t known for asserting himself. But by going 7-of-12 from the field and 5-of-6 from the line, he served notice that he’s ready to become Arizona’s go-to guy.
“I’ve just got to do that game in and game out,” Budinger said.
Paul Graham III scored 23 points for the Owls (1-1), who were without senior forward Carlos Monroe, their all-time leading rebounder and the No. 5 scorer in school history. He is dealing with eligibility issues.
FAU coach Mike Jarvis called Olson “one of my best basketball friends.”
“When we had the opportunity to come in this tournament. I personally was really looking forward to the opportunity to be on the opposite side of the bench so I could someday tell whoever it is that I got a chance to coach against Lute Olson,” Jarvis said. “He is a great man, a great coach, a legend.”
This was actually the second time in as many years that Arizona has opened the season with an interim coach.
Last year, Kevin O’Neill took over when Olson left on a personal leave of absence shortly before the season began. O’Neill was later designated Olson’s permanent successor, but he left the program after Olson returned to the job last spring.
Although no one could have imagined it at the time, Olson coached his last game at McKale Center on Feb. 17, 2007—an 81-66 loss to No. 5 UCLA, which has supplanted Arizona as the West’s premier program.
The Wildcats struggled early against the Owls’ 2-3 zone. FAU’s Carderro Nwoji hit two 3-pointers as the Owls took a 15-7 lead five minutes into the game.
It looked bleak for Arizona when starting forward Jordan Hill went to the bench with his second foul midway through the first half.
But that’s when the Wildcats woke up. Down 22-15, Arizona stormed back on a 9-0 run capped by Budinger’s driving dunk to take a 24-22 lead.
Midway through the second half, the Wildcats pushed the lead to 54-43 on Wise’s 3-point play and weren’t challenged after that.
“We’re undefeated, so I guess that’s good,” Pennell said.
Olson built a powerhouse in the desert. But if Monday night’s crowd was any indication, the Wildcats may have to reconnect with their rabid fan base. The game drew a crowd of 13,006. McKale Center’s capacity is 14,545.
Those who came out saw the brush-cut Pennell in front of the bench, long the domain of the tanned, silver-haired Olson.
At this time last year, Pennell was serving as a radio analyst for Arizona State. He joined Olson’s staff last spring—his first college coaching job since he worked on Rob Evans’ staff at ASU.
In fact, Pennell’s last game on the Sun Devils’ staff was in McKale Center on March 7, 2004. Pennell said he resigned the next day.
“I knew that day during the game that it would be my last game,” Pennell said. “The irony is, not only am I back here now, and it’s my first game back, but to be the interim head coach, it just kind of was an interesting moment for me. But once I kind of got out there on the floor, it was just another basketball game.”