SAN ANTONIO (Ticker) -- Loren Woods and Richard Jefferson were able to beat Mississippi at its own game.
Arizona's frontcourt duo dominated the paint as the Wildcats overcame their worst first half of the season to defeat the Rebels, 66-56, and advance to the NCAA Tournament's "Elite Eight" in the Midwest Region.
Woods, a 7-1 center, collected 16 points and 11 rebounds and the 6-7 Jefferson added 15 and 11 as the Wildcats (26-7) pulled away during the middle stages of the second half to reach a regional final for the first time since 1998.
"We're obviously happy to win," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. "We've known that we had the talent all along. It has finally come together. As far as our next opponent, we're just happy to be playing again." Arizona, the nation's preseason No. 1 team and the region's second seed, will play Illinois at the Alamadome on Sunday for a trip to the Final Four.
Mississippi (27-8), which led the Southeastern Conference in defense this season, held the Wildcats to a season-low 23 points in the opening half. But despite an early 16-0 run, Mississippi took only a one-point advantage into the break.
"We knew we were down, but you couldn't think about it," said Woods. "Instead, we fixed our shooting slump coming out of the locker room. We were the more focused team in the second half." Happy to reduce the contest to a half-court game, Mississippi suffered through a poor shooting night from the perimeter and the Wildcats turned up their defensive pressure after halftime.
A dunk by Woods with 17:35 left gave Arizona the lead for good at 27-26 and Gilbert Arenas and Jefferson each followed with steals and easy baskets as the Wildcats opened a five-point cushion with just under 17 minutes to play.
"We were moving the ball a lot more and had so many close shots," Jefferson said. "It wasn't that we were out of sync. We were just missing close shots. I don't think we were forcing our shots. We just couldn't get anything to fall down early." Aaron Harper hit the Rebels' first 3-pointer of the night with 14 minutes left to pull them within 36-35, but Jason Gardner's driving layup ignited the game's key burst, a 12-2 run that gave Arizona an 11-point advantage with 8:59 left.
After Gardner's layup, Michael Wright scored on a follow shot that forced Mississippi coach Rod Barnes to call a timeout with his team trailing, 40-35. After the stoppage, Woods scored in the lane.
Rahim Lockhart converted a layup for the Rebels, but Luke Walton and Jefferson had back-to-back baskets and Woods made of pair of free throws to give the Wildcats a 48-37 lead and control of the game.
"Richard had a double-double, so I'm happy that he got 15 points but even happier that he got 11 rebounds," said Olson.
The Rebels made one final push, pulling within 56-52 on a basket by Harper with 4:08 to go. But Woods answered with two free throws and Wright scored in the lane for an eight-point bulge with 2:57 left.
Making its first trip to the "Sweet 16," Mississippi received 16 points from freshman Justin Reed. Lockhart added 11 for the Rebels, whose two NCAA Tournament victories this season doubled their total entering the year.
"This has been a great opportunity to play in the 'Sweet 16,'" Mississippi coach Rod Barnes said. "This has been a special season and we have a special team. It has been a successful season.
Mississippi shot just 34.5 percent (20-of-58), including 5-of-21 from 3-point range, and was outrebounded, 34-32.
"There is no doubt in my mind that we earned respect," said Rebels guard David Sanders. "Making it to the 'Sweet 16' was a great experience for everyone in this room." Arizona, which connected on 42 percent (24-of-57) of its shots, collected just three assists as a team and went 0-of-8 from 3-point range.
Gardner and Wright scored 10 points apiece for the Wildcats, who went 18-of-22 at the foul line.
"It was sloppy for us until late in the first half," said Gardner. "We were rushing our shot selection in the first half. At times, we were just looking for the big pass or big shot." .