Wildcats Bring Home Title

Nov. 22, 2000

LAHAINA, Hawaii - Arizona finally is leaving Maui with a championshiptrophy.

The top-ranked Wildcats, who finished second in their two previousappearances in the Maui Invitational, held off No. 8 Illinois 79-76 in thetitle game Wednesday night.

Playing all three games without preseason All-America center Loren Woods,who was suspended for six games for NCAA rules violations, Arizona (3-0) beatChaminade and Dayton before handing Illinois (3-1) its first loss under coachBill Self.

'It would have been easy to say `We don't have our big guy so it's going tobe tough,' but that's not something you'll ever hear from these guys,' Arizonacoach Lute Olson said.

Arizona lost to Kentucky on a tip-in at the buzzer in the 1993 championshipgame and in 1997, again playing as the No. 1 team in the country, lost to Dukein the final.

This could have been another crushing defeat as Illinois, which trailed by15 points with 3 1/2 minutes to play, used a last-minute 3-point blitz to pull to77-76 with 15 seconds remaining.

Jason Gardner made two free throws with 11 seconds left to give Arizona a79-76 lead. Illinois had two last chances.

First, Cory Bradford's 3-point attempt from the corner was blocked by LukeWalton and went out of bounds with 1.2 seconds left. Sergio McClain then triedto inbound the ball but Gilbert Arenas knocked it into the air and the buzzersounded.

'Coach always tells us to keep our hands up to get a deflection,' Gardnersaid. 'At the end we just did the things Coach is always preaching to us.'

Gardner scored 18 of his 25 points in the first half to lead the Wildcats,while Richard Jefferson added 18 and tournament MVP Michael Wright had 16points and nine rebounds.

Despite not having the 7-foot-1 Woods, Arizona did an impressive defensivejob on Illinois' front line, which combined for 40 points and 27 rebounds inthe Fighting Illini's semifinal win over No. 6 Maryland.

Junior forwards Jefferson and Wright were a big part of the win in a choppy,foul-plagued game.

'In the second half we did a great job on their inside guys,' Olson said.'You know our inside guys are going to play hard. I thought our second halfwas really an outstanding half. We went hard to the boards and defensively dida great job.'

Frank Williams had 27 points, including eight in the final minute, forIllinois, while the front line of Marcus Griffin, Brian Cook and McClaincombined for just 14 points and 15 rebounds.

'They did a great job of trapping down in the post and our big guys weren'teffective,' Self said. 'The last four, five minutes we decided to spread thefloor with a smaller lineup, and I thought we were a better team late. But Idon't know if we could have played that way the whole game.

'When you're down 15 in the second half, and then have a chance to tie thegame, is pretty remarkable. The only thing I might change is that we put thewrong guy on the free-throw line. It would have been a lot different being downone or two at the end instead of three.'

Arizona used an 8-0 run to take a 49-40 lead with 14:54 to play. Illinoisclosed to 55-50 with 8:57 left on two free throws by Griffin.

Arenas sandwiched layups around a 3-pointer by Jefferson to make it 62-50with 7:35 left and the Wildcats were ahead by as many as 15 points beforeWilliams led the final surge. He and Sean Harrington combined for three 3s in a9-1 run that pulled Illinois to 75-74 with 25 seconds remaining.

'We talked before the game that this would be a war on the boards,' Olsonsaid. 'This was a great basketball game between two teams playing as hard astwo teams can. Don't forget it was the third straight day for these teams in agym that is hot and humid and makes it harder.'

The first half ended in a furious four minutes of runs.

Harrington hit consecutive 3-pointers to bring Illinois into a 31-31 tiewith 3:52 to play.

Arizona then went on an 8-0 run that was started by a three-point play byWright and capped by a 3-pointer by Gardner - his fifth of the half - with 2:50left.

Illinois closed with a 7-0 run as Damir Krupalija sandwiched a layup and asteal and an impressive dunk just before the buzzer around a 3-pointer byBradford to make it 39-38 at halftime.

Harrington had 15 points and Krupalija had 13.

AP Basketball Writer

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