LOS ANGELES — T.J. McConnell, Arizona’s senior point guard, could not stop his tears Saturday afternoon. They were streaming down his face when Arizona coach Sean Miller in the dying moments of an 85-78 loss to Wisconsin. They were flooding again 10 minutes later outside Arizona’s locker room when he embraced an Arizona Wildcats supporter. And when McConnell joined his coach for a postgame interview session, his eyes still were wet.
Asked about the moment the tears started falling, McConnell said, “I just came off the floor and apologized that I couldn’t get him to a Final Four.”.
McConnell looked over at Miller.
“That guy right there is like my dad,” he said, “so I just felt down that I couldn’t get him there.”.
The burden is no longer Miller’s alone.
On Saturday, he lost in the Elite Eight for the fourth time — for the second year in a row to Wisconsin and for the fourth time in seven years — and his players appeared to absorb the full weight of that as much as he did.
“I didn’t come to Arizona to lose in the Elite Eight again,” said Stanley Johnson, a freshman guard considered an NBA draft prospect. “I didn’t come here to play for second place, third place, and we lost the (regional) championship game to get to the Final Four.”.
Though McConnell’s words sounded pained and Johnson’s words sounded defiant, the coach’s words, with the media gathered, sounded measured and reasoned. As if he still had work to do.
With Wisconsin’s players cutting down the nets in Staples Center after winning the West Regional and advancing to the Final Four, Miller came armed for anyone who wanted to cut down his team that finished the season 34-4.
“I’m not going to apologize for being 34-4, and I’m not going to apologize for not making the Final Four,” he said, with McConnell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on the dais. “And neither should these guys.
“There are a couple of them that have won 69 games in two years, have been in the top 10 for every day that they’ve dribbled a ball at Arizona, and we lost to Wisconsin in two hard-fought battles at the Elite Eight. And if that’s a problem, I think you know what you can do.”.
It was as close to Miller got to defiant. Mostly, he seemed to accept the situation of four Elite Eight defeats.
“When you lose in this game, it’s hard,” he said. “You lose four times in seven years, that’s probably a record, right?”.
A day earlier he’d pointed out his team had won back-to-back, regular season Pac-12 Conference championships — perhaps the toughest thing they could possibly accomplish, he contended.
The message reached Arizona forward Brandon Ashley.
“We had one helluva season,” Ashley said. “We’re probably the best in school history.”.
Arizona basketball history shows that Hall-of-Fame coach Lute Olson led the Arizona Wildcats to the 1997 national title and four other Final Four appearances.
Yet Miller has rebuilt a dominant program that was in disrepair upon his arrival in Tucson six year ago.
“But with the way the world is today, people will jump all over us for losing in the Elite Eight,” he said, “and I just want to protect our players.
“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. That’s my point. We’ll see.
“Maybe the fifth time that I get back here, maybe I’ll break through.”.