SAN ANTONIO (Ticker) -- Expectations fulfilled.
Arizona put behind it a season of tragedy and disappointment to reach the Final Four as Loren Woods dominated on both ends of the floor in an 87-81 Midwest Region final victory over Illinois at the Alamodome.
The nation's No. 1 team and favorite to win the NCAA Tournament title prior to the season, the Wildcats (27-7) have weathered the death of coach Lute Olson's wife, two suspensions and early struggles and will play in the Final Four for the fourth time.
"The big thing is that we hung together all season long," Olson said. "Guys began to understand their roles. I am really pleased with our team and we're looking forward to playing more." Woods, who along with teammate Richard Jefferson missed games after violating NCAA rules, collected 18 points, six blocks and five rebounds. He had a key dunk with 1:33 left and was 4-of-4 from the foul line in the final 29 seconds as Arizona held off a late Illinois comeback.
"It was a battle and a war, just like we said it would be," Olson added. "Obviously, both teamd defend well. We were unable to corral missed shots. Our goal was just to hang tough until good things happened." The second-seeded Wildcats led for most of the afternoon, but the top-seeded Fighting Illini (27-8) were able to grab a 56-54 lead with 7:19 to play on a layup by junior Robert Archibald, who had a career-high 25 points.
Arizona had an immediate answer, however, as Luke Walton made two free throws to tie it and the 7-1 Woods' basket in the lane with 6:17 left put the Wildcats ahead for good.
Reserve Gene Edgerson hit the first of two free throws with just over six minutes to play and Jason Gardner drilled a long 3-pointer with 5:39 left to cap the 8-0 burst and give Arizona a 62-56 cushion.
"In practice, I work on those deep 3s," Garner said. "At certain times of the game, they are appropriate to take. That was one of those times. Thankfully, I hit it." Down the stretch, the game -- which lasted 2 1/2 hours -- turned ugly as Illinois hoisted 3-pointers and, make or miss, was content to foul. Six Illini fouled out and Arizona attempted 56 free throws, including 24 in the final five minutes.
"We work on free throws in practice all the time," said Woods. "Many times, the game comes down to free throws in the last few minutes. We were able to make the most of ours today." After the Wildcats' advantage expanded to 73-62 on a free throw by Walton, Cory Bradford and Sean Harrington drilled consecutive 3-pointers for Illinois. Following another free throw by Walton, Bradford connected again to bring the Illini within 74-71 with 1:41 to play.
But Gardner broke the press and fed a wide-open Woods for a dunk that steadied the Wildcats, who will play defending national champion Michigan State in the national semifinals Saturday in Minneapolis.
"I want to congratulate Arizona," said Illinois coach Bill Self. "They have a great team and I wouldn't be surprised to see them win it (the national championship) next Monday." Gilbert Arenas scored 21 points for Arizona, including 16 in the opening 9:04 as the Wildcats raced to a 21-10 lead. Backcourt mate Gardner added 18 points with five assists and Jefferson had 10 points.
Arizona was the preseason No. 1 team in the nation but the suspensions of Woods and Jefferson, the death of Bobbi Olson on January 1 and a feud between Edgerson and acting coach Jim Rosborough all contributed to an 8-5 start.
The Wildcats, however, will take a 10-game winning streak to the Metrodome for their first Final Four appearance since winning the 1997 national championship.
Illinois, which was participating in the "Elite Eight" for the first time since its 1989 Final Four campaign, used an 11-4 run toward the end of the first half to fight within 34-30 at the break.
"We got in a hole early and it seemed like we were playing catch-up the whole game," Self added. We came back but they responded. We didn't play our best game, but we still put ourselves in position late in the game." But the Illini, who shot just 40 percent (25-of-63) from the field, struggled because Big Ten Player of the Year Frank Williams was off his game. Williams, who scored a career-high 30 points in the regional semifinals against Kansas, was held to nine on 3-of-15 shooting by Jefferson on Sunday.
"Coach thought it would be good to put my bigger body on him," Jefferson said. "Plus, I'm taller than he is so it is easier to disrupt him. Luckily, I was able to keep him struggling for a while. You have to keep a hand in his face and not let him get open looks at 3s." Bradford tallied 22 points while going 6-of-11 from 3-point range for Illinois, which forced 19 turnovers while committing 17.
"We came back but it's tough to maintain when you expend that kind of effort," Arichibald said. "They kicked it into the next gear, made that run and we were still playing catchup. This really stings right now after being so close. We really feel for our seniors most of all." The Wildcats, who were 43-of-56 at the foul line, finished at 47.5 percent (19-of-40) from the field.
The game was the third between the teams this season. Arizona posted a 79-76 victory over Illinois in the championship game of the Maui Invitational on November 22, but the Illini responded with an 81-73 triumph in Chicago on December 16.