Final Four Bound!!!
March 25, 2001
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Illinois Post-Game Press Conference
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SAN ANTONIO - At home and at work, Lute Olson endured more anguish thanhe showed.
Now his Arizona Wildcats are headed to the Final Four, trying to write anending that surely won't mend a broken heart but might make up for theheadaches they caused him.
Gilbert Arenas scored 18 of his 21 points in the first half, Loren Woodsscored 16 of 18 in the second half and Arizona gave Illinois as much of apounding as it took to win the Midwest Regional final 87-81 Sunday.
The Wildcats, 19-2 since beginning the season 8-5, earned a trip toMinneapolis for a national semifinal game against defending champion MichiganState on Saturday. The Spartans beat Temple 69-62 Sunday to win the SouthRegional. ACC rivals Duke and Maryland will meet in the other Final Four game.
'I think the way the guys hung together through the ups and downs showsthat we have great team chemistry,' Olson said. 'This is truly a family.Everyone knows their role and accepts it. That's why there wasn't anydissension when things could've fallen apart for us.'
Back in October, the Wildcats were talking about not just being champions,but being among the best teams of all-time.
Then came the headaches: Woods suspended for six games to start the season,a one-game suspension for Richard Jefferson, a stretch of five losses in 10games.
The heartache came on Jan. 1 when Bobbi Olson, the coach's wife of 47 yearsand a second mother to generations of his players, died of ovarian cancer.
More headaches followed - a two-game suspension to reserve Gene Edgerson anda flareup by Woods - but the Wildcats will take a season-best, 10-game winningstreak into the Final Four.
'We went through a lot of struggles all year,' Arenas said. 'We set agoal before the season to get to the Final Four and it looked rough for awhile. But we are very grateful to be here now and having the opportunity toreach our goal.'
Arizona's victory upheld the honor of the Pac-10, which saw Stanford andUSC get bumped in regional finals Saturday. The Wildcats are theconference's first team to make the Final Four since Stanford in 1998.
Top-seeded Illinois (27-8) got this far by playing a bruising defense andfrom the beginning it was obvious they were trying to shut down the 7-footWoods and power forward Michael Griffin.
While the pair didn't even attempt a shot in the first half, Arenas waslighting it up from the outside and Arizona was hitting 56 percent of itsshots. Yet the second-seeded Wildcats were only up by four at halftime.
The Illini kept banging and made their move after Richard Jefferson went tothe bench with four fouls and 16:07 left.
A 3-pointer by Lucas Johnson put Illinois ahead for the first time, 49-48,then a layup by Robert Archibald, who had a career-high 25 points, made it56-54, giving the Illini their biggest lead.
But Archibald fouled Luke Walton on the other end and his two free throwstied the game. After Marcus Griffin missed the front end of a one-and-one,Woods put Arizona ahead for good, 58-56, with his first basket, a meek 2-footerthat bounced several times on the rim before falling through.
The Wildcats ended up with a 10-0 run that stretched the lead to 64-56.Griffin and Brian Cook fouled out for the Illini in that span, which JasonGardner capped with an NBA 3-pointer and a pair of free throws.
The Illini got as close as 84-81 in the closing seconds, but Gardner andWoods buried three foul shots to seal Arizona's second victory over Illinois inthree games this season.
'We played catch-up the whole game,' Illini coach Bill Self said. 'Wefinally got the lead, but Arizona responded like good teams do. We didn't playour best by any means.'
The teams combined for 59 fouls and 81 free throws. The Wildcats took themost, hitting 43-of-56, including 33-of-42 coming in the second half. SixIllini players fouled out.
'We played a very physical game and never backed down,' said Illiniforward Sergio McClain, who fouled out with two points and six rebounds. 'Theyare just a very good team.'
Arenas, who had 13 points on 6-of-23 shooting in two previous games againstthe Illini, made 7-of-10 in the first half and the Wildcats hit 56 percent oftheir shots. He missed all three of his second-half shots.
Woods was 3-of-3 from the field and 12-of-13 from the line. Gardner also had18 and Jefferson had 10 points. His biggest contribution was helping holdIllinois' Frank Williams to nine points, 21 less than he scored two nightsbefore.
'It seems like they came out very aggressive on me and put somebody muchbigger guarding me to stop me from shooting over them,' said Williams, the BigTen player of the year. 'I think Arizona's depth was the key. They keptputting different people on me. It made it real tough.'
Illinois' Cory Bradford bounced back from a wretched 1-for-13 game in theregional semifinals to hit 8-of-14 shots including 6-of-11 3-pointers. Hescored 25 points.
Illinois was trying to get back to the Final Four for the first time since1989. The loss also prevented a second straight Big Ten showdown in thenational semifinals. Michigan State beat Wisconsin last year.
By JAIME ARON
AP Sports Writer
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