Arizona hits stride to run off Irish, reach Elite Eight

Superb at both ends, top-seeded Wildcats romp to 88-71 victory

West Regional

March 28, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Arizona coach Lute Olson had been waiting awhile for a performance like this from his team, the kind of game on which the Wildcats can stake a claim as the best team in college basketball this season.

After what top-seeded, second-ranked Arizona did last night to fifth-seeded Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament West Regional semifinal at the Arrowhead Pond, the Wildcats can start digging those stakes again.

Trailing early after the Fighting Irish hit their first five shots, Arizona made 12 straight of its own while tightening its defense and sailed to a stress-free, highlight-filled 88-71 victory.

It put Arizona (28-3) into tomorrow's regional final against second-seeded Kansas (28-7), which defeated No. 3 seed Duke, 69-65.

Senior guard Jason Gardner led the Wildcats with 19 points and six assists, while senior forward Luke Walton finished with 16 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. Freshman center Torin Francis led Notre Dame (24-10) with a career-high 25 points and 10 rebounds.

It marks the second time in the past three seasons that the Wildcats have reached the Elite Eight.

"All year long we've been a team that's been able to put together really good runs, and the really good runs are the result of our defense," said Olson, whose team squeezed into the Sweet 16 with a double-overtime win over Gonzaga. "The confidence level gets up there and the defense causes that."

Leading 31-28 with a little under 11 minutes left, Arizona emerged from a Notre Dame timeout to score the next 12 points and 16 of the next 17 in what became a 23-5 run.

Conversely, after opening the game by making 12 of its first 17 shots, Notre Dame went ice-cold. The Fighting Irish missed six straight, three of them air balls, and committed a couple of turnovers.

"The biggest thing was that the coaches told us to deny them the ball," Gardner said. "We got some tipped balls and we got out on the break and we started playing our game."

One play seemed to motivate Gardner more than any other. It came in the first half when Notre Dame guard Chris Thomas, Gardner's friend and rival from their youth in Indianapolis, stole the ball from Gardner and fed Francis for a layup.

"That got me going," Gardner said of Arizona's only first-half turnover. "I was a little bit mad and Coach O gave me a stare."

Right after that, the Wildcats scored six straight points and forced Notre Dame coach Mike Brey to call a timeout. Arizona regained the lead it would never lose.

"We got beat by a heck of a basketball team," Brey said after Notre Dame made its first Sweet 16 appearance in 16 years. "It was a little too much for us to handle."

While Notre Dame cut the deficit to 13 points at halftime when the Wildcats got a little sloppy, the Fighting Irish denied themselves any chance of making it a game about eight minutes into the second half.

Trailing 65-53, Notre Dame missed three straight free throws, two by reserve guard Torrian Jones and the front end of a one-and-one by senior guard Matt Carroll.

Led by Walton, the Wildcats went on another run and built their lead up to as much as 83-56. Walton made a couple of moves that brought his father, Bill, out of his seat, including a baseline spin that led to a dunk.

Not to be outdone, Gardner then made a jump stop in the lane and threw a shot off his hip. As the lead grew, style won out over substance with a couple of highlight-reel dunks by freshman guard Hassan Adams.

"He was our inspiration off the bench," Gardner said of Adams, who finished with 14 points on 7-for-9 shooting.

Along with the ankle injury suffered by Keith Bogans in Kentucky's victory last night over Wisconsin in the Midwest Regional semifinal in Minneapolis, Arizona's win here re-established the Wildcats as a tournament favorite.

"When we play like that on offense and stay on top of a team on defense, we're a very hard team to play with," Walton said. "I wouldn't say we're unbeatable, but if we play like that, we're a hard team to beat."

The kind of team that can stake a claim to being the best in college basketball.

NOTRE DAME - Miller 4-13 1-2 11, Francis 10-11 4-6 25, Timmermans 0-1 0-0 0, Thomas 6-14 5-5 20, Carroll 4-14 0-1 11, Quinn 1-2 0-0 3, Cornett 0-0 0-0 0, Cornette 0-2 1-2 1, Jones 0-2 0-2 0, Lustig 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-59 11-18 71.

ARIZONA - Walton 7-14 2-2 16, Anderson 3-9 2-3 9, Frye 7-17 0-0 14, Stoudamire 4-6 0-0 11, Gardner 6-12 4-4 19, Fox 0-2 0-0 0, Ranne 0-1 0-0 0, Torres 0-0 0-0 0, Rodgers 1-1 0-0 2, Adams 7-9 0-0 14, Iguodala 1-5 1-2 3. Totals 36-76 9-11 88. Half -Arizona, 53-40. 3-point goals-Notre Dame 10-23 (Thomas 3-5, Carroll 3-7, Miller 2-6, Francis 1-1, Quinn 1-1, Jones 0-1, Cornette 0-2), Arizona 7-14 (Stoudamire 3-4, Gardner 3-5, Anderson 1-2, Adams 0-1, Iguodala 0-1, Ranne 0-1). Fouled out-Cornette, Stoudamire. Rebounds-Notre Dame 36 (Francis 10), Arizona 44 (Anderson, Frye 12). Assists-Notre Dame 15 (Thomas 5), Arizona 19 (Walton 8). Total fouls-Notre Dame 16, Arizona 17.

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