ANAHEIM, California (Ticker) -- Jason Gardner showed Chris Thomas that things would be different on the collegiate level.
Gardner won the battle of Indiana high school point guards and top-seeded Arizona capitalized on a hot start en route to a convincing 88-71 victory over fifth-seeded Notre Dame in a West Region semifinal.
Gardner and Thomas battled each other on the high school level in Indianapolis. Earlier this week, Thomas boasted that he won three of four meetings against Gardner during their high school days.
But with the stakes higher now, Gardner got the last laugh on Thomas. The senior flawlessly ran the Wildcats' offense in the first half, when they shot 53.5 percent (23-of-43), committed just one turnover and build a 53-40 lead.
The Wildcats used a 28-12 run over the final 12 minutes of the first half to take control of the contest and led by double digits throughout the second half. They pushed the advantage to as many as 26 over the final 20 minutes.
Gardner finished with 19 points to lead five players in double figures for the Wildcats (28-3), who will meet Kansas in the regional final on Saturday. Arizona last advanced to the Final Four two years ago, when it lost to Duke in the championship game.
A sophomore, Thomas netted 20 points but did most of his scoring in the second half when the game already was out of hand. He made 6-of-14 shots but also committed seven of the Irish's 19 turnovers.
Freshman Torin Francis made 10-of-11 shots and finished with 25 points to lead the Fighting Irish (24-10), who failed in their bid to advance to a regional final for the first time since 1978.
Notre Dame became the first Big East team to fall in nine games in the NCAA Tournament. The Irish also suffered their worst NCAA Tournament loss since an 89-56 defeat to Kentucky in the 1958 Mideast Regional final.
"We got beat by a heck of a basketball team," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "I'm very impressed with Arizona. We were going to have to score more than 71 points to make it interesting. I'm so impressed with their older guys, Anderson, Gardner and Walton. They placed with such a nice temp. They don't panic and they're so skilled."
After needing two overtimes to post a dramatic 96-95 victory over Gonzaga in the second round, the Wildcats looked like they might be part of another scintillating game in this one.
With a lack of regard for defense on both ends, the teams combined for 35 points before the first timeout. A 3-pointer by Salim Stoudamire gave the Wildcats a 19-16 with 14:23 left in the opening half.
"It was obvious early in the game that it was going to be a track meet," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. "Both teams came out ready to go but relaxed. Anytime you see teams come out and shoot the ball the way both teams shot it early, you know they're ready to play."
Early on, the Wildcats pounded the ball inside after Irish big man Tom Timmermans picked up two fouls. Channing Frye took advantage for the Wildcats as he made his first five shots.
Frey and Rick Anderson led a big effort by the Wildcats' big men. Frey had 14 points and 12 rebounds and Anderson nine and 12 boards. Arizona scored 38 points in the paint, compared to 26 for Notre Dame.
"The refs called an awesome game," Frey said. "They let us bang and be physical throughout the game."
Francis also was a force for the Irish. He went 8-of-8 from the floor in the first half and made consecutive layups to give Notre Dame a 26-25 lead with 12:11 left in the first half.
The Irish made 12 of their first 17 shots but failed to build a lead against the Wildcats, who were even more efficient on the offensive end.
After the Irish posted a 68-60 victory in the second round over Illinois, college basketball analyst and former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps praised the Irish for turning around a suspect defense that was a major reason why they struggled late in the season.
But the Wildcats returned the Irish to their defensive struggles by making 17 of their first 26 shots. They had 12 assists on those baskets, working against both a zone and man-to-man defense at times.
"Right before the game, we talked about family in the locker room," said Gardner, who handed out six assists. "We talked about moving the ball and I think we did a great job making the extra pass. It got everybody involved in the offense and making shots."
Talented freshman Hassan Adams made a layup at the 11:47 mark of the first half to give the Wildcats the lead for good at 27-26. But that was only the beginning.
Adams made another layup and Anderson scored from in close, fueling a 22-3 that turned a close game into a mismatch.
Adams and Anderson each scored six points in the burst and Gardner had five. Luke Walton capped the spurt with a layup that opened a 47-29 lead with 5:56 left before intermission.
Gardner credited Adams' insertion into the game as a turning point.
"I think he did a great job," Gardner said. "He gave us a lot of defense. He came in and gave us a big dunk and gave us a lot of defensive rebounds and I think he was an inspiration coming off the bench."
"It seems like they shot 80 percent," Thomas said. "They got good looks. On that stretch (when Arizona pulled away), we took quick shots and that triggered their transition offense."
Walton had a solid all-around game with 16 points, eight assists and seven rebounds while Adams finished with 14 points.
A jumper by Francis got the Irish within 50-38 with 1:38 left in the half, but Gardner answered 21 seconds later with a 3-pointer from he the left side.
After their hot start, the Irish cooled down and made just 5-of-18 shots to close the half.
Dan Miller and Matt Carroll, who both were key in the upset of Illinois, both endured rough games as they combined to go 8-of-27 from the field. Carroll and Thomas each made three 3-pointers for the Irish, who went 10-of-23 from the arc.
A pair of foul shot by Miller pulled the Irish within 65-53 with 11:55 left in the contest before the Wildcats went on another of their patented runs to put away the game.
Walton scored the first six points in a 16-3 burst that Adams capped with a layup, making it 81-56 with 5:18 to go. Gardner netted five points in the surge.
"The key to our run was just staying on them," Walton said. "It makes them tired. If we can keep up the defensive intensity, that's when we go on runs and limit teams to one shot so I think they got a little tired because we kept it up."
Arizona shot just 39 percent (13-of-33) in the second half to finish at 47 percent overall. Notre Dame went just 8-of-24 after the break and shot 42 percent (25-of-59).