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Redemptive Returns

Michigan State Makes It Back to Final Four and Arizona Finally Lives Up to Its Billing

Midwest Regional: Wiser Wildcats don't let themselves get fouled up by Illini aggression in 87-81 victory.


SAN ANTONIO — Surviving more collisions than a crash-test dummy, Arizona kept both hands on the steering wheel and the tires on the road to the Final Four.

Along the way, the Wildcats struck a blow for civility.

Every other blow was administered by Illinois, and just as the rule book stipulates, whistles followed. The Illini committed 36 personal fouls and had six players foul out.

Arizona navigated the demolition derby by making 43 free throws and left the Illini in the rearview mirror, 87-81, Sunday in the Midwest Regional final before 30,212 at the Alamodome.

Arizona set regional records for free throws and attempts (56), and every trip to the line underscored the value of brains over brawn. The lesson became clear: You can't foul your way to the Final Four.

While Illinois apparently prepared by watching WWF highlights, Arizona made an astute adjustment, covering 6-foot-3 Illini guard Frank Williams with 6-7 forward Richard Jefferson.

Williams, who scored 30 against Kansas on Friday, made three of 15 shots and had nine points.

"Sometimes guys aren't used to being guarded by a taller guy," Jefferson said. "I concentrated on putting my hand in his shot pocket. I challenged his outside shot, then every time he drove, Loren [Woods] was there."

Woods, a 7-1 center, blocked seven shots and outplayed a succession of Illini big men. Only reserve Robert Archibald, who scored a career-high 25, was effective.

"Their guys started to wear down," Woods said. "They accumulated fouls, and it was perfect for me. They were tired and I wasn't."

Any test of stamina was supposed to be won by the Illini, who gained a reputation as a physical team from the day first-year Coach Bill Self showed up at a preseason practice in army fatigues.

Maybe the Rambo bit went too far. After the game, it was time for Self-examination. "We fouled a lot," Self said. "I can't remember a game I've been involved in where six guys fouled out."

Woods particularly benefited from the hacking. He attempted only three shots, making them all, but made 12 of 14 free throws.

Instead of defending Woods when he received a pass in the low post, the Illini simply grabbed his arms. Which resulted in two Arizona points nearly every time.

Other Wildcats took advantage of the freebies. Jason Gardner made seven free throws and Luke Walton and Jefferson each made six. After a long three-point basket by Gardner extended the lead to 62-56 with 5:38 to play, the Wildcats made 21 of 25 free throws.

And because Illinois committed foolish fouls early, it seemed every foul down the stretch resulted in a disqualification. All three front-court starters--Brian Cook, Sergio McClain and Marcus Griffin--fouled out and so did their replacements--Archibald, Lucas Johnson and Damir Krupalija.

Illinois (27-8) never quit, making five three-point baskets in the last 2:04 and forcing Arizona (27-7) to continue to make the free throws. Gardner missed four down the stretch, causing teammate Gilbert Arenas to ask, "Are you trying to give the game away?" but the point guard made two to stretch the lead to 80-73 with 45 seconds left.

Illinois had one chance to seize control. Archibald scored eight consecutive points to pull the Illini even with 12:21 to play and a three-point shot by Johnson forged a 49-48 lead one minute later.

Johnson made another three-point shot for a 54-53 Illinois lead and a layup by Archibald made the score 56-54 with 7:18 to play. However, Arizona scored the next 10, including the key three-point shot by Gardner.

"We had momentum and that shot sucked it out of us," Self said.

Arenas was the Wildcats' only productive scorer in the first half, making seven of 10 shots and scoring 18. The sophomore guard did not make another field goal and finished with 21 points, but Gardner and Woods picked up the slack in the second half, each finishing with 18.

Illinois made only eight of 27 first-half shots but trailed only 34-30 because of nine offensive rebounds and 11 Arizona turnovers.

"We were giving them too many opportunities and second chances in the first half," Coach Lute Olson said. "We got 10 offensive rebounds in the second half, and I thought we battled. I said at halftime, 'The toughest team is going to win this thing.' "

Or the smartest. A well-rounded effort prevailed over mindless aggression.

"We tried not to get caught up in their physical reputation and all that," Arenas said. "We put [Jefferson] on Williams and played as tough as possible. We just played good basketball."



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