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Robyn Norwood ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Walton Is Back on the Mountain

January 17, 2003|Robyn Norwood

That perfect picture isn't as likely to happen now.

Luke Walton, John Wooden and Bill Walton don't figure to be posing with the Wooden Award this April.

Not with Luke Walton -- a preseason contender for national player of the year -- averaging 7.9 points a game, the victim of a right ankle that has given way four times since practice began.

But here is Arizona, still the No. 2 team in the country.

And there was Walton, making many of the plays that brought Arizona back to beat USC, 81-72, Thursday night at the Sports Arena during a game in which the Trojans outplayed Arizona for great stretches at a time.

USC's Desmon Farmer was fabulous in the first half and Nick Curtis was living above the rim.

The Trojans led, 9-0, at the outset and by as many as nine in the second half too.

But Arizona held USC to 28.9% shooting in the second half, and a 19-4 Arizona run turned the game.

The box score says Hassan Adams, the freshman from Westchester High making his first trip back to Los Angeles, led Arizona with 21 points.

Your mind tells you it was Walton, with 13 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

"It was awesome," forward Rick Anderson said. "He played great. He was back to himself. We've all got to get used to playing together again. It's only been a week and a half in practice.

"The freshmen still have to get used to those passes."

Walton, in his third game back since re-injuring his ankle against Boston University when he stepped on teammate Jason Gardner's foot, played 32 minutes, the most he has played this season.

"I feel a lot better.... I've got life. I felt in the best condition yet," said Walton, who sat out a total of four games after two different tweaks of his ankle.

Arizona survived without him, thanks partly to the play of Jason Gardner, who pulled out a win over Texas with his grit and scored 21 to beat Oregon at McArthur Court, along with performances by guard Salim Stoudamire and Anderson.

But Arizona will be so much better with Walton part of the flow, and it showed Thursday.

With USC leading by four midway through the second half, Walton calmly took aim from behind the three-point arc and made his only three of the game.

That made it 66-65.

After Errick Craven missed a shot on the other end, Walton led the fastbreak, pivoting in mid-stride to drop the ball to Andre Iguodala, who split two defenders, made the basket and was fouled, completing a three-point play to give Arizona its first lead of the game, 68-66, with 9:08 left.

"I want our freshmen to feel if they've got an open shot, they better take it," Walton said.

Down the stretch, Walton drove toward the basket, spun, and dumped the ball to Channing Frye for a layup and a five-point lead with 1:50 left.

He scored on a layup himself with 46 seconds left, and grabbed a key rebound.

Then he walked down the court with a swagger and a little grin, like the one that flickered on his father's face in the stands when the scoreboard monitor showed Bill and the crowd booed.

The game ended with Frye missing a shot in the final seconds, and Walton dribbling out the clock instead of trying to score.

Who needed the points?

Arizona had survived again, and the Wildcats are 12-1 overall and 5-0 in the Pac-10.

They didn't look like the No. 2 team in the country much of the evening, but the Wildcats didn't lose their grip on their ranking or the game.

If the Wildcats can manage as well as they have through Walton's struggles, what might happen when they're at full strength?

Bill Walton waited outside the locker room Thursday night.

His son's setbacks are only that, he said.

"That's part of life. That's the important steps to becoming a man. Life is easy when you have the ball in your hand, but what happens when things don't go your way?"

Some other player who scores more points will probably win the Wooden Award. Someone like Brian Cook of Illinois, Kyle Korver of Creighton, even freshman J.J. Redick of Duke.

"I don't care about those things, but it would have been unbelievable if that had happened," Luke said. "I'm worried about getting my health back, getting better so we have a chance to win a national championship come March."

Come to think of it, that trophy would be a nice one for father, son and father figure to pose with too.

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