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Tick, Tick . . . Wright Wakes Up

April 01, 2001|CHRIS DUFRESNE

MINNEAPOLIS — Sixty minutes isn't that long, unless you're a star player who hasn't scored in that time span during the biggest tournament of your life.

"I was thinking about it a lot," Arizona senior forward Michael Wright said. "I'm not going to lie to you. I was happy as hell for the team, but it was just like something was missing."

Not something. Someone.

From the start of last week's game against Illinois through the first half of Saturday's national semifinal game against Michigan State, Wright was a go-to guy who had gone bust.

The player who has scored as many as 28 points in a game this season and pulled down as many as 19 rebounds, found himself paddling with one oar in a basketball Bermuda Triangle.

In last week's 87-81 victory over Illinois, Wright did not attempt a shot from the field and had contributed only two rebounds in 20 minutes.

His bagel against Illinois kept Wright up all week.

"I always have trouble sleeping when I don't do my part," he said.

Yet he answered by sleepwalking through a scoreless first half against Michigan State, missing his only shot attempt.

Was this some sort of cosmic joke being played on Wright, a third-team All-American and long the team's strong, silent type.

"I was thinking all during the half, 'I hope I don't have one of those games again,' " he said.

Then, as strangely and mysteriously as his game disappeared, it returned.

Wright, in fact, started Arizona's ignition switch during a second-half blitz Saturday that did not end until Arizona had pulled off a stunning, 80-61 victory against the defending national champions.

"Shocking," Wright said of the victory.

Shocking is what we said of Wright's about-face.

He finished with 13 points, all in the second half, making six of 10 shots.

Wright's first basket since March 23 against Mississippi was a designed play that came out of the halftime chat.

The basket came 23 seconds into the half and put Arizona up, 34-32.

Two minutes later, Wright followed his own miss for a basket that pushed the lead to 41-30.

Wright's third basket, after he got a nice pass from center Loren Woods with 14:48 left, gave Arizona a 17-point lead.

After the game, reporters couldn't wait to find out what had come over Wright.

Halftime pep talk?

Change of sneakers?

A team intervention?

Wright said he just kept playing.

It didn't hurt that no one, including Coach Lute Olson, gave up on him.

Eugene Edgerson, a reserve forward but the only current Wildcat who logged playing time in the team's 1997 national title win against Kentucky, gently told Wright to get with the program.

"I said, 'Michael, we need you to play better in the second half,' " Edgerson said.

Luke Walton conveyed the same message.

"He just kind of nodded to us," Walton said of Wright, "and we knew he'd come out and play that way."

Why Wright had not played that way the previous 60 minutes was a mystery.

Wright has long been Arizona's most dependable inside scorer, a player who can get hustle baskets on nights he doesn't have his shooting touch.

Asked if he had ever gone that long without a basket, Wright said emphatically: "Never."

Wright entered the game averaging 16 points and eight rebounds.

He is described in the team's media notes as "Arizona's most consistent player this season."

Wright was an All-Pac-10 player, a Naismith and Wooden award finalist. He has amassed 33 "double-doubles" in his carer.

"You could count on him for 10 points and 10 rebounds every game," senior forward Justin Wessel said. "You just chalked it up."

Until recently.

Wessel thought Wright might have been pressing against Illinois because he was a star player at Chicago's Farragut Academy.

"He's a tough guy to read," Wessel said. "He always stays at the same level."

Inside, though, Wright was a mess.

All week he wondered how his team won the Midwest Regional while his game was headed south.

He wondered why he couldn't catch a break or a rebound.

"It was like, 'Oh, God, can I just get a rebound my way?' " Wright said. "Can I get a put-back? Or a garbage basket?"

The karma was not with him.

"I did get down on myself, in practice," he said. "I was missing shots. But I just told myself, 'Keep working hard, and eventually you're going to come out of it.' "

Wright came out of it at about the same time Arizona came out of its shoes.

Arizona's victory was, indeed, shocking, reminding some of Nevada Las Vegas' 30-point destruction of Duke in the 1990 NCAA title game.

Arizona's 16-1 run to start the second half won't be soon forgotten in Minneapolis or East Lansing.

"It was kind of crazy," Wright said. "It was like we kicked it up. You thought Michigan State would kick it up too. But they didn't."

Arizona has put together similar stretches this season.

On Jan. 20, in Tucson, after trailing by eight at halftime, Arizona outscored UCLA, 55-22, after the break.

On Feb. 17, at the Sports Arena, Arizona defeated USC by 44 points.

"We've had some good streaks," Wright said. "That second half against UCLA. But nothing like this. This is the Final Four."

And now, for Arizona, the Final Two.

*

MEN'S FINAL

ARIZONA (28-7) vs. DUKE (34-4)

6 p.m. PDT Monday, Ch. 2

OUT COLD

Duke's Chris Duhon suffered a concussion in the second half against Maryland. D9

FIRST LOOK

Athletic Arizona might have a slight advantage in Monday's championship game. D10

*

WOMEN'S FINAL

NOTRE DAME (33-2) vs. PURDUE (31-6)

5:30 p.m. PDT today, ESPN

IT'S STATE-MENT TIME

Indiana bragging rights are at stake as the Boilermakers and Irish renew rivalry. D10

WORTH A LOOK

Everyone would have enjoyed this NCAA women's run, Diane Pucin writes. D10

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