March 25, 2003
GAME: No. 5 Notre Dame (24-9) vs. No. 1 Arizona (27-3).
REGIONAL: West, semifinals.
TIME: Thursday, 7:27 p.m. EST.
SITE: Arrowhead Pond; Anaheim, Calif.
Jason Gardner and Chris Thomas have battled one another on the court through most of their lives. Now a lot more people are paying attention.
Two of the nation’s top point guards try to help their teams reach the West Regional final when Gardner leads top seed Arizona against Thomas and fifth-seeded Notre Dame.
Both of these floor leaders were born and raised in Indianapolis, playing against each other numerous times in junior high, high school and during their summer breaks from college.
“There’s a lot of competitiveness between these two young men,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “They are great friends, but they are the kind of guys that when they are between the lines, they want to tear each other’s heart out.”
Thomas was Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 2001, two years after Gardner received the honor. While Gardner opted to head west to attend Arizona, where he became an All-American as a senior, Thomas stayed near home to help Notre Dame continue its emergence.
This will be the first time they have met in a meaningful game since high school.
“I’ve known Jason since probably sixth or seventh grade. We have always played in the same leagues growing up,” Thomas said.
“We keep in touch throughout the season and we followed each other and we are just proud to represent our city and our state.”
While Thomas is trying to lead the Irish to a regional final for the first time since 1979, Gardner is hoping to extend his college career for at least one more game.
Anything but winning a championship would probably be disappointing for Gardner, who helped the Wildcats reach the national title game in 2001, only to lose to Duke. Arizona fell to Oklahoma in the round of 16 last season.
“It’s going to be fun, a lot of fun,” Gardner said. “My whole family is going to be there, I’m sure he’s going to have a lot of family there. I never looked at him like a rival. It was more like our schools were rivals. I think it’s going to be an up-tempo transition game.”
Both Gardner and Thomas played important roles in their teams’ second-round victories.
Gardner scored 22 points as the Wildcats escaped with a 96-95 victory over Gonzaga in double overtime.
Thomas had 17 points and five assists in the Irish’s 68-60 win over Illinois.
While the other remaining teams in the West – Arizona, Kansas and Duke – are known as perennial powerhouses, Notre Dame is considered by many the least likely to emerge from the region.
“We believe we’re one of the top programs in the country, one of the best teams in the country,” senior guard Matt Carroll said. “We’re going in there to win this game. We’re going in there to beat Arizona even though no one is picking us to win.”
Carroll likely has benefitted from the four days off between games. The team’s leading scorer sprained an ankle in the first-round win over Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and has totaled just 13 points in the tournament.
The senior guard has a tough matchup with Salim Stoudamire, who led Arizona with 33 points in the first two rounds.
The Wildcats have won the last three matchups with Notre Dame, most recently in 1999. The Irish won the only other meeting in 1934.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Notre Dame – F Dan Miller, F Torin Francis, C Tom Timmermans, G Thomas, G Carroll. Arizona – F Luke Walton, F Rick Anderson, C Channing Frye, G Stoudamire, G Gardner.
TEAM LEADERS: Notre Dame – Carroll, 19.8 ppg; Francis, 8.3 rpg; Thomas, 7.0 apg. Arizona – Gardner, 14.3 ppg; Frye, 8.0 rpg; Gardner and Walton, 4.9 apg.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Notre Dame – At-large bid, Big East; beat No. 12 Wisconsin-Milwaukee 70-69, first round; beat No. 4 Illinois 68-60, second round. Arizona – At-large bid, Pac-10; beat No. 16 seed Vermont 80-51, first round; beat No. 9 seed Gonzaga 96-95, 2 OT, second round.
ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORD: Notre Dame – 29-30, 27 years. Arizona – 36-20, 22 years.