Arizona steals the show, 80-61

Michigan State encore cut down by `buzz saw'

Wildcats prevent encore by Spartans, steal show

April 01, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS - Pass. Pickoff. Dunk. Repeat.

As Arizona scored the first 14 points of the second half, this was the video that seemed to be in constant replay for Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who saw his hopes for a second straight national championship ending, over and over again.

When the show ended, Arizona had scored a convincing, 80-61 victory in the NCAA men's basketball tournament semifinals to move within one win of its second national championship in the past five years.

"The only thing I'd like to figure out is how this happened," said Izzo, whose 28-5 team had experienced only close losses. That distinction ended when Arizona had nine of its 12 steals in the second half and scored 16 points off Michigan State's 11 second-half turnovers, while getting a game-high 21 points from point guard Jason Gardner, who also had three steals. "I wonder why we were so lax. We were playing a team that was a buzz saw that was on a mission."

One mission was to continue a season dedicated to Bobbi Olson, the wife of Arizona coach Lute Olson for 47 years before she died on New Year's Day.

Her passing was one of many tribulations for the Wildcats program, which began the season with high hopes and a No. 1 preseason ranking, but dealt with suspensions and team conflict before rebounding to win 17 of its past 19 games.

Arizona forward Richard Jefferson, who had 17 points, eight rebounds and two steals, said his team was tired of talking about the late Mrs. Olson, but acknowledged that it is one of the motivating factors for the Wildcats.

"We've been talking about it for a long time," said Jefferson, who turned Michigan State All-American Jason Richardson into a non-factor. "Everyone knows ... that this season is dedicated to Mrs. Olson. We basically said everything we can about the situation."

It was possible to be more expansive about the subject of the Wildcats' defense, which held Michigan State to 41 percent shooting and seemed to tear the heart out of the Spartans every time there was any hope.

Two occasions stick out. One came at the end of the first half, when Michigan State hoped to tie the game for the fifth time. Charlie Bell faked and went past his man on the left wing and seemed to be in the clear for a pull-up jumper, which looked good before Arizona center Loren Woods knocked the shot out of the air, preserving his team's 32-30 lead at the half.

The second occasion came in the second half, when Michigan State had cut Arizona's 20-point lead to 62-52 on Andre Hutson's follow of a miss by Richardson with 7:34 left. That's when Gilbert Arenas - who had suffered whiplash in the second half and sat out for about five minutes - stepped into the passing lane, made a steal and shoved the ball ahead to Jefferson, who dunked to begin an 8-0 run that included another basket off a steal.

It was one of six steals for Arenas, who also finished with 12 points and seven assists.

"Not a whole lot of people know about our defense," said Olson, who went on to recite his team's defensive accomplishments this season. The Wildcats - who shot 50 percent for the game - have held their opponents to less than 45 percent shooting in 15 of their past 17 games.

"People want to talk about the offensive ability, but ... there were not many shots that were taken from the perimeter without somebody flying in or putting a lot of pressure on them."

There weren't many options for Michigan State, which couldn't shoot very well - making only two of 14 three-point attempts - and also had to contend with the shot-blocking of the 7-foot-1 Woods in the middle.

The only Spartan who had much success down low was freshman reserve Zach Randolph, who scored 12 points off the bench and tied the game at 21 (Michigan State never led) with 6:24 left in the first half.

But he had three first-half fouls, and the other starters who could be depended upon to go inside - Hutson and Richardson - shot a combined 2-for-10 in the first half. Meanwhile, Woods had only one block in the first half, but was successful in scoring down low and had nine of his 11 points in the first half.

Woods, a former Wake Forest player, put the Wildcats up for good with 3:09 left before halftime at 29-26.

With a slim deficit despite being even on the boards - as opposed to being on the way to his team's average advantage of 15 rebounds - Izzo was hopeful: "We didn't play well and we were only down two."

Few could have expected the ambush that came next, with all five Arizona starters scoring during the 14-0 run. When Jefferson dunked after a steal with 15:37 left, the Wildcats were suddenly up 46-30, and eventually held a 55-35 lead on a jumper by forward Michael Wright, who scored 13.

It even shocked Woods, who said it felt as if he and Wright were just passive bystanders.

"We didn't do anything," Woods said. "We'd run down to their block and two seconds later, we were headed to the other end of the floor."

Michigan State tried to get back into the game, with Hutson scoring eight of his team-high 20 points during a 10-0 run that cut Arizona's lead to 55-45 with 10:04 remaining.

But the Spartans, trailing 62-52 with 7:34 left, couldn't keep the Wildcats from going on one last run, ending the careers of Bell and Hutson, seniors in their third-straight Final Four.

Arizona was quick and "made a lot of right decisions and we made a lot of wrong decisions," Hutson said. "It's tough to go out like this, but you know, it happens."

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