March 27, 2003
By BETH HARRIS
AP Sports Writer
ANAHEIM, Calif. – Arizona took all the drama out of this one early.
Luke Walton, Jason Gardner and the experienced Wildcats rolled right over Notre Dame 88-71 Thursday night to advance to the West Regional final.
This victory was much easier than Arizona’s one-point win over Gonzaga in double overtime in the second round, an NCAA tournament classic.
The Wildcats, early season favorites to go all the way, are just one victory from the Final Four and three short of their second national title.
“I think we’re sitting in a great situation,” said Gardner, who scored 19 points in his school-record 134th career start.
Walton, last seen sprawled in exhaustion on the floor in Salt Lake City after grabbing the final rebound in the second round, had 16 points, seven boards and eight assists for Arizona, which won the 1997 national title.
Channing Frye had 14 points and 12 rebounds, and Hassan Adams added 14 points.
“When we’re playing on top of our game defensively and we’re hitting shots on offense, we are a very hard team to play,” Walton said.
Arizona will play Saturday against either second-seeded Kansas or No. 3 Duke, which played later Thursday. The Wildcats (28-3) are in the round of eight for the first time since 2001, when they lost to Duke in the national championship game.
The fifth-seeded Fighting Irish (24-10) had five victories over top 10 opponents – their most in one season – but their shooting didn’t hold up against the nation’s highest-scoring offense.
“Nobody is crying in that locker room,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “We had a very good year. Kind of new territory for our program getting to this spot.”
Nobody is crying in that locker room. We had a very good year. Kind of new territory for our program getting to this spot.Notre Dame coach Mike Brey
Freshman forward Torin Francis had 25 points on 10-of-11 shooting – more than double his average – and 10 rebounds to lead the Irish. Chris Thomas added 20 points.
The Irish opened on a tear, making their first five shots. Francis hit all eight of his attempts in the first 20 minutes.
“We were going to have to shoot it fearlessly to stay with this team, but some of those quick shots turned into transition baskets and that hurt us,” Brey said. “We were going to have to score more than 71 points to make it interesting.”
The Wildcats used one of their patented scoring runs in the first half to break open a fast-paced game between two teams that like to run, score and shoot 3-pointers. The Irish made 10 3-pointers and Arizona hit seven.
“The key to our run was just staying on them. They got a little tired and we kept on,” Walton said.
Neither team led by more than five points before Arizona took command with a 22-3 run that gave the Wildcats a 47-29 lead with 5:56 remaining in the first half. There were eight lead changes and seven ties by halftime, which ended with Arizona ahead 53-40.
“It was obvious in the early going it was going to be a track meet,” Arizona coach Lute Olson said. “Both teams came out ready to go. We shot the ball well, they shot the ball well, then all of a sudden, theirs weren’t going and we continued to shoot the ball well.”
The Wildcats scored 12 straight in the spurt, including the first baskets of the game by seniors Gardner and Walton, as the Irish finally cooled off. Matt Carroll and Thomas missed 3-pointers, and Carroll tossed up consecutive airballs.
“You’ve got to let Carroll and (Dan) Miller crank it up, and a lot of those went in this season,” Brey said.
Thomas hit a 3-pointer to open the second half and draw the Irish within 10 points, but they got no closer. Salim Stoudamire and Gardner answered with 3-pointers that pushed Arizona’s lead to 61-45.
“It seemed like they shot 85 percent from the floor in that stretch,” Thomas said of Arizona’s first-half run. “We took quick shots and that just triggered their transition offense. When you give a team like Arizona that much time to run their break, it’s hard to stop.”
The Wildcats led 65-53 before going on a 16-3 spurt, keyed by Walton’s six points, to finish off the Irish.
Gardner and Thomas, both former Indiana high school players of the year, guarded each other most of the game. Thomas got to his good friend first, stripping Gardner of the ball and passing to Francis for a basket. It was Arizona’s only turnover of the first half.
“It was great defense by Chris,” Gardner said. “That got me going. I was a little bit mad and Coach O gave me a stare.”
Moments later, Thomas turned the ball over to Gardner, whose pass led to a basket by Rick Anderson.