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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

1 + 2 Equals Pond Sum

Notre Dame simply can't keep pace with top-seeded Wildcats, who run away to an 88-71 victory.

March 28, 2003|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

Notre Dame ran with Arizona for the first eight minutes, but the rest of the game was more like running with the Bulls (of Pamplona).

In a game matching squads of similar styles but different talent levels, top-seeded Arizona ran fifth-seeded Notre Dame out of the Arrowhead Pond with an 88-71 victory in the West Regional semifinals before a crowd of 17,607.

Arizona (28-3) will play Kansas on Saturday for the West Regional title and a trip to the Final Four.

Thursday's game?

It was like Indy car vs. Soap Box Derby. Both teams were built for speed but not really playing the same sport.

Notre Dame came out fast, made 11 of its first 14 shots and held a 26-25 lead with 12:11 left in the first half before Arizona went on a 22-3 blitz that effectively ended the game and sent the Irish home with their tournament watches and 24-10 record.

"They were a little bit too much to handle," Irish Coach Mike Brey said of Arizona.

Notre Dame sophomore guard Chris Thomas said it seemed as if Arizona "shot 85% from the floor" in the first half.

Actually, it was only 53.5%, but that was plenty in combination with Notre Dame's 33.3% effort.

Notre Dame had one chance of winning this game: Shoot a lot and hope those shots went in. The Irish have relied on three-point shooting as a great equalizer, but they'd never had to equalize Arizona.

"We're no mystery as a team," Brey said. "We've got to have some of them go in."

Arizona played a near-perfect half, its only turnover a Jason Gardner pass stolen by Thomas, but that mistake seemed only to fuel the Arizona run.

"It kind of got myself going," Gardner said. "Coach O [Lute Olson] gave me a stare, and I knew I couldn't let that happen again."

Brey, before the game, had described Arizona's style of play as "beautiful basketball" and Thursday he got the full facial.

Five Wildcats scored in double figures, led by Gardner's team-high 19 points. That four-for-29 shooting slump Gardner toted into this regional is history. He made six of 12 shots and three of five three-point tries.

Channing Frye and Hassan Adams chipped in with 14 each while senior forward Luke Walton had 16 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in 32 minutes.

While Frye and Gardner led the first-half run, it was Walton who kept Notre Dame at bay in the second half with peerless passing, deft shooting and court control.

The Irish never hit the two or three straight shots that might have given them a chance in the second half and it seemed as though every time they missed, Walton made them pay.

With 8:35 left, he made an NBA-like baseline move for the basket to put his team up by 18, 71-53, and later scored on a beautiful spin move near the basket.

Arizona pushed the lead to 26 before Olson called off the chase by removing Walton and Gardner, to a thunderous ovation, with 4:26 left.

Basically, with rare exceptions, crushing opponents with bursts of brilliance is what Arizona has been doing all season.

The Wildcats dismantled UCLA by 35 and 36 points and came from more than 20 points down at Kansas to win by 17.

"This was not unusual for us," Olson said.

What was unusual was Arizona nearly getting sent home last week by Gonzaga, the Wildcats needing double overtime and a little luck to survive and advance.

Sometimes, though, those close NCAA calls have a way of jump-starting a confident team. Remember Florida advancing to the national title game in 2000 after nearly losing to Butler in the first round?

The Wildcats stopped short of saying they were unbeatable when playing the way they did against Notre Dame.

"I'm not going to say no one in the country can play with us," Walton said.

What Walton did say was, "I definitely give ourselves a big advantage when we're playing that way."

Notre Dame's Brey could only watch and marvel.

"They play with such a nice tempo," he said of Arizona's seniors -- Gardner, Walton and Rick Anderson. "They don't panic and they're so skilled. It kind of makes the younger guys calm down."

The Irish will now move out and move on. They had an unexpectedly good season and can build on freshman center Torin Francis' game-high 25 points on 10-for-11 shooting.

"The bar has been raised," Thomas, a sophomore, said of Irish expectations. "You have to take into consideration that Arizona has been here 15 straight years and we've been here only three straight years."

Notre Dame's problem Thursday was that senior sharpshooters Dan Miller and Matt Carroll combined to make only eight of 27 and point guard Thomas committed seven turnovers.

The Irish haven't had much luck in Southern California lately, if you lump Thursday's 17-point defeat in with their 44-13 football flop against USC, but there will be other days.

"No one is crying in that locker room," Brey said. "We had a great year, given how we were thought of in October. This is new territory for our basketball program."

Thursday, they ran into old territory.

Arizona territory.

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