March 7, 2002
By JOHN NADEL
AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES - The Arizona players cleared the air after a recent three-game losing streak.
And Luke Walton got a haircut.
So far, so good.
Walton had 25 points and eight rebounds Thursday night as the 15th-ranked Wildcats beat archrival Arizona State 73-56 in the opening round of the first Pacific-10 Conference tournament since 1990.
The Wildcats held a players-only meeting after losing to Stanford 76-71 on Feb. 28 - their third straight setback - and responded with a stunning 99-53 season-closing victory over No. 25 California two days later.
And then came Thursday night's one-sided win over their in-state rival.
"I think the meeting was more to get the guys focused for Cal," said Jason Gardner, who added 22 points, including 12 free throws without a miss. "I think it was pretty crucial for us to win that game heading into this tournament and the NCAA tournament."
Walton has a different look without his long hair.
"I've got two good ones under my belt," he said with a smile, referring to the two games he's played since getting his shaggy locks trimmed to a buzz cut.
The second-seeded Wildcats (20-9) meet the winner of the UCLA-California game in Friday night's second semifinal matchup, after top-seeded Oregon faces fourth-seeded Southern California.
The Pac-10 is playing its first tournament since 1990. The conference held a tournament for four years before calling it off, but resumed it this season.
Arizona won the last three championships after UCLA took the first title, and now has a 10-game winning streak in tournament games.
"We're happy that we got through this one," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. "Arizona State had a difficult time hitting the perimeter shot. We did a good job of keeping the ball out of the middle, where they're dangerous."
Jason Braxton had 12 points and four assists and Chad Prewitt and Curtis Millage added nine points each for seventh-seeded ASU (14-14), which finished its season by facing six straight ranked teams - the most in school history.
The Sun Devils were 1-5 during the stretch, beating only UCLA on Feb. 16.
Prewitt also had 12 rebounds for ASU, who made only 2 of 12 foul shots in equaling its season-low point total.
"I'm extremely sick to my stomach right now," ASU coach Rob Evans said. "For the first time in a long time, I feel like our team didn't compete, especially against our rival.
"Arizona played better than we did today and they played harder. We had trouble containing Luke Walton. A lot of people do."
Arizona won handily despite having only four assists, two each by Walton and Gardner.
"There were a lot of passes that went inside to Luke where he made his move and they're not counted as assists," Olson explained.
Rick Anderson was held scoreless, but had 14 rebounds, leading Arizona to a 47-39 advantage in that department.
Walton scored eight points and Stoudamire and Gardner made 3-point shots as the Wildcats outscored the Sun Devils 16-8 to start the second half for a 48-31 lead.
But Justin Allen made a pair of 3-pointers and Kenny Crandall added another as ASU went on a 12-4 run to draw within nine points.
Arizona scored the next 11 points, six by Walton, to make it 63-43 with 4:51 remaining.
"They took the fight to us," Millage said. "We just didn't execute on offense."
The Sun Devils made only 24 of 69 shots (34.8 percent).
ASU, which beat Arizona 88-72 on Jan. 23 to snap a 12-game losing streak to the Wildcats, scored first before Walton's eight points sparked a 12-0 run by the Wildcats, who led the rest of the way.
The Sun Devils missed 11 consecutive shots before Prewitt's short jumper ended an ASU scoring drought of over eight minutes.
Gardner then scored seven points during a 9-2 run, putting the Wildcats ahead 23-6. However, the Sun Devils scored 12 straight points in a span of 2:20 to draw within five.
Stoudamire scored the final four points of the half to make it 32-23. The Sun Devils were within nine despite missing all seven free throws and going 1-for-8 from 3-point range. They wound up 6-for-23 from beyond the arc.
The tournament champion receives an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, but it's likely six Pac-10 teams will receive invitations.