STANFORD — In a season of upsets, Stanford pulled off one of the most improbable Thursday night before a packed Maples Pavilion crowd of 7,500, knocking off top-ranked Arizona, 82-74.
The Wildcats came in 20-1 and had been ranked No. 1 since Christmas. They had won eight in a row and were 9-0 in the Pacific 10 Conference.
How hard had they been challenged? Their Pac-10 victories had come by an average of 29 points. The first time these teams met, Arizona won, 90-65.
Except for their loss to New Mexico, the Wildcats had trailed only Syracuse and UCLA in the second half of game this season.
So why was this game sold out for weeks, and why were people standing out in the road with "I Need Tickets" signs, looking like Super Bowl fans who took a wrong turn?
Maybe they knew something. Stanford Coach Mike Montgomery, whose team improved to 14-7 and 6-4, said all week the Cardinal had a chance.
"I still think Arizona is a great basketball team," he said. "I thought if we did all the things we're capable of, we had a chance. The crowd picked us up every time we got down."
Stanford forward Howard Wright was less analytical. As students mobbed the floor, Wright, who finished with 22 points and 9 rebounds, said: "If I could bottle this feeling, I would be a millionaire. This is so sweet."
Arizona led most of the game but could never shake the Cardinal. Wright scored inside with 4:40 left in the first half to give Stanford a 33-32 lead, but Arizona quickly rebuilt a 41-35 edge and led, 43-40, at the half.
Arizona senior Sean Elliott had 14 points by halftime. Arizona shot 59% in the half and appeared to be in control.
But the Cardinal defense made Elliott work harder in the second half, and the teams traded baskets for much of the period.
Wright and Todd Lichti, who had eight points in the first half, did the majority of scoring for Stanford down the stretch.
Arizona frontcourt players Tom Tolbert and Anthony Cook scored successive baskets to give the Wildcats a 65-59 lead with 10:54 left but, instead of folding, Stanford took over the game, controlling the pace and hitting the key shots.
Lichti hit a three-point play to pull Stanford within 67-66 and, at the 6:40 mark, Scott Meinert hit a 15-footer to tie it, 69.
Steve Kerr, who had 18 points, and Meinert traded three-pointers, then Elliott scored on a baseline drive for a 74-72 lead at the 5:36 mark. That would be Arizona's last points.
Elliott finished with 22 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists but missed a shot in the lane and the first of a one-and-one free-throw situation in the closing minutes.
"We did a better job on Elliott in the second half," Montgomery said. "That was our plan. Shutting them out the last five minutes, that wasn't part of our plan."
Lichti, who led all scorers with 23 points, tied the game with a banker from the right side, and Wright hit a free throw to take the lead for good with 2:59 left.
Center Greg Butler, a senior from Rolling Hills High who would prefer to play on the perimeter, got a tap-in and hit two key free throws with 21 seconds left to ice the game. Butler finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
Arizona shot 53% from the floor and hit five three-pointers, but Stanford shot 56%, won the boards, 32-26, and hit 22 of 30 free throws, including 8 of 10 in the second half.
"In the first half, I thought we were playing well and they were playing well," Arizona Coach Lute Olson said. "Late in the game, they played well but we didn't play so well. Our late shooting decisions were not very good. When you play in their place, you have to play perfect to come out on top.
"They kicked our tails every way they could be kicked. Simply put, Stanford played better than we did."
Montgomery said his players "were just aggressive and confident, and just stayed after it and gave ourselves a chance to win. We can play better, but I don't think we can play harder."