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'Cats Know Tests Can't Get Much Tougher
Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
Release: 03/23/2003
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March 23, 2003

By BOB BAUM
AP Sports Writer

SALT LAKE CITY - Humbled and relieved, Arizona advanced to the round of 16 with an appreciation of just how fortunate it is to still be in the NCAA tournament.

Now the Wildcats get a chance to catch their breath.

When players on both teams collapsed to the court Saturday night in exultation or despair after two thrilling overtimes, top-seeded Arizona had beaten ninth-seeded Gonzaga 96-95 in a game that ranks with the greatest March Madness has produced.

"I think this was one of the best games of all time," Wildcats point guard Jason Gardner said. "I wasn't ready for my career to end."

It wasn't hyperbole. Saturday's game featured great plays, big shots, missed opportunities, mistakes and near-miracles. If hanging on in a close one is a required course for an NCAA champion, Arizona made the grade.

When it was over, Luke Walton applauded the Bulldogs.

"They could have won that game as easily as we could have," he said. "They played as hard as we did. They played as tough as we did."

The victory wasn't secure until Walton grabbed the rebound of Blake Stepp's 8-foot bank shot, and the horn sounded.

"When I saw him do that up-fake to go into that leaner, my heart just stopped for a second," Walton said. "When that ball came off, my heart started beating again."

The Wildcats (27-3) went back to Tucson for a little rest and preparation for their next opponent, fifth-seeded Notre Dame (24-9). The teams play Thursday in Anaheim, Calif.

Arizona's Rick Anderson had 17 points and 11 rebounds in what he called "the best game I've ever played in - in my life," and he listed the ways the contest will help his team.

"Determination, heart, leadership - a lot of things came together," Anderson said.

Much has been made of Arizona's depth, but this victory was almost entirely achieved by the starting five. Gardner scored 22. Channing Frye had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and played the final two minutes of regulation and both overtimes with four fouls.

Walton shrugged off a stomach virus for 16 points and nine assists. He had Arizona's biggest basket of the night, a power move in the lane for a short, double-pump jumper to tie the game with 4.7 seconds left in the first overtime.

Salim Stoudamire was off the mark most of the night but scored five points in the second extra period, including the 5-foot floater for the game's final points with two minutes to play. He almost turned into the goat when he lost the ball out of bounds to give Gonzaga its final chance.

Gardner played 47 minutes, Walton 45, Frye 43, Stoudamire 42 and Anderson 40.

The longest night was put in by Gonzaga's Tony Skinner, who played all 50 minutes, scoring a career-high 25 points, but missed an open 3-pointer with four seconds to play in the second overtime. Stepp, who also scored 25, got the rebound for the putback, but it went off the front of the rim.

Arizona coach Lute Olson heaped praise on Gonzaga.

"They're as good as any 1-2 seed around," he said. "They have huge hearts. Down the stretch, when it seemed we would get off on them a little bit, all of a sudden - big shots, big follows."

Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the UCLA opening, said he'd never been more proud of a team. It was another memorable NCAA tournament moment from the little Spokane, Wash., school that made it to the regional finals in 1999, and the regional semis the following two years.

"Both teams played well enough to advance," Few said. "It's too bad that can't happen."

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