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March 28, 2013
A physically exhausted Solomon Hill stood in a corridor of the Galen Center, his tone firm and message clear: Arizona needed players to realize both their roles and potential, otherwise his career would end in disappointment.
It was exactly one month ago today that Hill and fellow Wildcats senior Kevin Parrom were looking for answers from their teammates. One month to the day, and all of two miles away at the Staples Center, yet worlds apart.
The Pac-12 Conference loss UA suffered that night in Los Angeles is light-years from the Wildcats' NCAA West Regional semifinal showdown with Ohio State. The disappointment of not winning a league championship is replaced with the motivation of appearing in the program's fifth Final Four, and first in 12 years.
Hill understood the significance of the win one month today, and he certainly does now.
"As you get older, you start to understand the magnitude of games when you play inside a building like the Staples Center," Hill told reporters at Wednesday's press conference.
A matchup with a talented OSU side is an opportunity for Hill to rewrite the script on his L.A. story. He suffered through a frustrating return to his hometown last month. But every good screenplay produced in this city has its protagonist overcome Act II adversity.
"[The team captain's duty is] just getting the younger guys to understand that every time you step on the floor, you leave it all out there, kind of how I do it in practice," Hill said. "If you're slacking in practice, they're going to make an example out of you. It's just to prepare you for a game like this."
As he has taken the lead in preparation during practice, Hill also has taken it upon himself to guard the Buckeyes' star. Forward Deshaun Thomas is among the most talented players in all of college basketball. NBA pundits are drooling over his game, and with good reason. He's scoring at a 20-point-per-game clip, a feat of particular significance when factoring the defensive style OSU plays.
Slowing Thomas from the outset is key, as is disrupting the Buckeyes' rhythm. When UA was last in Southern California, its inability to dictate tempo resulted in two losses. That's a harsh lesson to which Hill alluded.
"Every possession matters. It doesn't come down to the last 10 seconds of the game. It's the whole build up to the end of the game," Hill said. "So guys can't just turn it on, you have to turn it on in the beginning if you want to finish that way."
UA has had no trouble starting with intensity in its first two NCAA tournament games, leading both Belmont and Harvard from first basket to final buzzer.
Assorted experts had the Wildcats penciled in for a Round of 64 exit, given UA's late season struggles - the L.A. losses included. But such a departure is not what attracted Mark Lyons to UA.
"This is what I came here for," he said.
Lyons reached the Sweet 16 while at Xavier, and UA had 14 runs to this round prior to this most recent. But Lyons is in pursuit of more.
Lyons became the face of UA's conference struggles - fairly or not. If the NCAA Regional is an opportunity for the captain Hill to secure that big hometown win that eluded him last time, for Lyons it's an extension of his ongoing redemption story.
The senior guard is pacing the Wildcats with 50 points through two tournament wins. His ability to both attack the rim and shoot from deep is central to UA's offensive efforts.
In OSU, he faces Aaron Craft, often considered the best on-ball defender in college basketball. Continuing his hot scoring run is no easy feat, but Lyons has a supporting cast behind him.
"My teammates, I knew before I got here that they had a lot of faith in me," he said. "My coach had a lot of faith in me. When I committed here, I didn't expect anything else but to go as far as I could in the NCAA tournament."