'Cats' Final Four performance lives up to Woods' prophecy
Updated: Saturday March 31, 2001 8:57 PM
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - At the start of the season, Loren Woods proclaimed Arizona perhaps "the greatest college team ever."
With the Wildcats' phenomenal show of quickness, spectacular athleticism and near-perfect balance from the starting five, the statement seemed no exaggeration in an 80-61 rout Saturday of Michigan State in the NCAA semifinals.
"Words cannot explain," Richard Jefferson said. "We've been through so much this year. I think this whole team has kind of a calm about us, because we knew things were going to work out."
Jefferson soared to block a shot to start the game, Woods blocked one at the half.
Then Michael Wright, who had vanished in the previous game and a half, burst to life in the second half.
All five starters average in double figures, and each had a big hand in the humbling of the defending national champions.
"We had five guys in double figures for the umpteenth time in the last two years," Jefferson said, "probably more times than any other team in the country. That's our thing -- balance."
Jefferson scored 16 of his 17 in the second half. Wright scored 13, all in the second half. Jason Gardner scored 21, 13 in the first half. Woods, the much-maligned center, was everywhere with 11 points and eight rebounds.
Oh, and Gilbert Arenas, the leading scorer on the season for Arizona, had 12 points, seven assists and six steals.
Late in the game, he was knocked to the floor by Michigan State's burly Zach Randolph on a screen and left with an injured shoulder. He returned to help seal the victory, but was unavailable for interviews while receiving postgame treatment.
Afterward, he went into the stands with a big ice pack on the shoulder.
"It's a team," coach Lute Olson said. "We have to count on everybody that we have to do the job. In the first half, Michael was having problems, so it wasn't surprising the first offensive set in the second half went to Michael. We followed that up with another one to Michael, and we got some momentum going out of him to add to what we already had going with the perimeter guys."
Arizona had more steals than turnovers, 12 to eight.
"This team is very quick and plays great defense," Olson said. "People seemed surprised about that, but we're a very good defensive team."
Eugene Edgerson, the retro-warhorse with the Afro and 1970s shoes -- a member of Arizona's 1997 national title team -- was strong off the bench, and ended the game with a slam-dunk rebound.
With a zone defense that may have surprised the Spartans, the 7-foot-1 Woods and the rest of the Arizona front line lifted their arms like tenacles around the basket.
On the perimeter, the quickness of Jefferson, Arenas and Gardner resulted in steal after steal after - usually capped by a spectacular dunk. The Wildcats had 12 steals, nine in the second half.
Remember, all five Arizona starters were nominated in the preseason for the John Wooden Award as player of the year. Against Michigan State, they showed why.
Leading just 32-30 at halftime despite seeming in control, the Wildcats outscored Michigan State 21-3 to start the second half to go up 53-33 on Jefferson's 3-pointer with 14:10 remaining.
Wright, the team's second-leading scorer, had taken just one shot, and missed, in the first half after going without a shot in Arizona's victory over Illinois in the Midwest Regional final.
He scored 11 in the first 6:50 of the second half.
The Wildcats have won 11 in a row. They are 18-2 since coach
Lute Olson returned from a leave-of-absence following the death of
his wife, Bobbi, of ovarian cancer Jan. 1.