March 8, 2002
By RICK HAGGERTY
AP MegaSports Writer
Hitting a late-season bump may have been just what Arizona needed.
Since losing three of four at the end of February, the 15th-ranked Wildcats (20-9) have been playing perhaps their best basketball of the season.
They'll look to keep it going when they meet 25th-ranked California (22-7) in the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament Friday at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Although Arizona seemed to be fading near the end of the season, it has since responded with a 99-53 rout of Cal in its regular season finale on March 2, and a 73-56 win against archrival Arizona State in the Pac-10 quarterfinals on Thursday.
Cal recovered from loss to Arizona, getting past UCLA 67-61 Thursday in the quarterfinals. The Bears will now likely try to avenge last week's lost to a potent Arizona squad.
The Wildcats have attributed their recent surge to a players-only meeting held last week to address the team's troubles.
"I think the meeting was more to get the guys focused for Cal," said senior guard Jason Gardner, who scored 22 points in the win over Arizona State. "I think it was pretty crucial for us to win that game heading into this tournament and the NCAA tournament."
Junior forward Luke Walton, who had 25 points and eight rebounds Thursday, had a different explanation. The Wildcats are 2-0 since Walton shaved his familiar locks and started sporting a buzz cut.
"I've got two good (games) under my belt," Walton said.
This season is the first time the Pac-10 has held a tournament since the 1989-90 season. The league held an end-of-season tournament for four seasons over a decade ago, and Arizona won the final three. The Wildcats now sport a 10-game winning streak in Pac-10 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."
In order to keep that streak alive, second-seeded Arizona will need to top third-seeded Cal for the third time this season. In addition to last week's triumph, the Wildcats beat the Bears 68-58 on Jan. 31.
Arizona and Cal both finished with 12-6 conference records, putting them in a four-way tie for second place with Stanford and Southern Cal.
While the Wildcats had little trouble in their first-round matchup on Thursday, the Bears were in an exhausting battle with UCLA. Cal could never pull away and did not gain the lead for good until freshman forward Amit Tamir scored to break a tie with 1:39 remaining.
Senior guard Ryan Forehan-Kelly led the Bears with a season-high 20 points, and junior forward Joe Shipp - who averages a team-high 14.4 points - added 18.