In their last game against Illinois, the Irish hit 11 first-half three-pointers and all but put the game away in the first half. Against Arizona they wound up one short of that tally for the entire game, never going on a three-point tear like they against the Illini.
"I thought we had to be in a track frame of mind, like we were in the first half against Illinois," Irish coach Mike Brey said. "I thought for a portion of the first half that was good for us. They went on a run, their defense got very good and I thought they pressured us very well."
The Wildcats made Notre Dame work for their scores. They limited streak shooting Matt Carroll and Dan Miller to just a combined 8-of-27 shooting and only 11 points apiece. They did make five three pointers, but that was three less than they had in the previous weekend's game.
In three losses this season, opponents played physical in an attempt to frustrate the athletic Wildcats. Last weekend Gonzaga nearly pulled the upset by trying to beat the Wildcats into submission. Even the finesse UCLA Bruins pounded Arizona in their upset win at the Pac-10 Tournament. Notre Dame ignored these trends and instead stuck to the style they played all season instead of trying to adapt to the style of play that's a staple of their Big-East brethren.
It may have been seniors Jason Gardner and Luke Walton who led the way offensively for the Wildcats, but it was great defense that truly sparked the decisive 22-3 first half run. Before that time the Irish were hanging tough, but after the run Notre Dame never seriously challenged again.
Gardner won the battle of the Indianapolis point guards, outplaying fellow Hoosier Chris Thomas. Late buckets gave Thomas a 20-19 scoring edge, but his seven turnovers were more than triple the two that Gardner committed. Gardner, an average defender at best, gave the high scoring sophomore all he could handle. Thomas had to work for every score, often times just shooting over the shorter Gardner.
"I thought he did a great job on Chris Thomas," Lute Olson said. "You notice Chris had seven turnovers, I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that Jason did a great job of keeping (him) in front of him." Gardner played in control, letting the game come to him. He was a solid 3-for-5 from behind the arc, dished out six assists and had three steals. He took just 12 total shots, making six.
Walton started slow, but established himself as a force in the second half. The senior attacked the basket, backing down players like Dan Miller and Matt Carroll. After a 2-of-7 start, Walton was 5-for-7 in the second half, including two of the prettiest plays of the year. At one point he drove the baseline, gave a pair of trapping big men a head fake, and finished with a reverse lay-in that would make his more acrobatic freshmen teammates proud. Later in the game he again attacked the baseline, spun back toward the perimeter and with the Irish defender behind him, exploded to the rim for a power slam dunk.
"I was getting good looks in the first half, I just wasn't hitting them," Walton explained. "In the second half Jason did a great job recognizing that I was feeling good and getting me the ball."
Walton was not content to only provide highlight worthy scores. He also provided his teammates with great scoring chances, dishing out eight assists.
Calling the first 6:30 of the game torrid would be an understatement. Play refused to halt and both teams traded shot after shot, taking an extra two-and-a-half minutes before a stoppage of play for a television timeout. Notre Dame hit its first five shots, but Arizona matched that and actually led 21-19 at that first respite. Both teams found good look after good look. Stoudamire and Frye led the Cats in the early going. Frye abused Tom Timmermans for 10 points, while Stoudamire was on fire, nailing a pair of threes and connecting on a nice runner on the opening possession.
"Both teams came out ready to go and relaxed," Olson said. "Any time that you see teams come out and shoot the ball the way that both teams shot it early you know that they're ready to play." For Frye and Stoudamire the first six minutes would be the highlight of their nights, on the offensive end at least. Frye began the game making his first five shots, but connected on just two of his last 12. Frye's frustrations began when the Irish moved Timmermans off of him and let the equally athletic Torin Francis take the defensive assignment. Not only did the standout freshman frustrate Frye defensively, but he took advantage of being isolated on Frye in scoring 25 points. The Cats rarely double-teamed the post, for fear of the sharp-shooting Irish perimeter players. With Frye often alone, Francis had room to operate scoring inside and out, and converting a near-perfect 10-of-11 field goals.
Despite struggling at times, Frye did not get down. Instead he led the Wildcats in rebounding with 12 and swatted away a trio of Irish shots.
Stoudamire wound up playing just 19 minutes after being saddled with foul trouble. He eventually fouled out with 2:18 to play, but not before making 3-of-4 three pointers and scoring 11 points. Notre Dame continued the hot shooting it displayed in the win over Illinois. Before the break, Thomas, Miller and Carroll each hit a three, while the inside was available for drives and lay-ins. Following the timeout, the Irish worked another play for Carroll and the senior responded with his second trey.
Olson inserted Adams and Iguodala into the game for defensive purposes and it paid immediate dividends. Big defensive plays sparked the Cats to the game-deciding 22-3 run. A monster Frye block led to a fast break and the Cats were off and running. Frye swatted the shot to midcourt where Adams scooped it up and raced for a lay-in. From there the Wildcats forced two steals, two airballs and a host of bad shots. Chris Quinn connected on a three to end the run, but even with his basket Arizona led 47-32.
For Adams it was a sweet reward after playing just four minutes against Gonzaga. Adams played 22 minutes, getting extra time due to Stoudamire's foul difficulties. Adams was 7-of-9 from the field, scoring 14 points. He further helped his cause by playing tight defense and hitting the boards. He finished with four rebounds and three steals.
"I thought (Adams) 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. I think he was an inspiration for us coming off the bench."
Notre Dame outscored Arizona 7-3 at the end of the first half and then opened the second period of play with a Thomas three from the top. Suddenly the Irish had new life, down just 10, 53-43.
With their lead trimmed the Cats did not flinch, scoring 10 of the next 12 points. Stoudamire answered Thomas' three with a trey of his own. On the next possession Walton worked his way in for a tough leaner. Following a Miller dunk, Gardner nailed a three-pointer and canned a pair of free throws to bump the Wildcats back up to a 63-45 advantage.
A series of Arizona fouls allowed the Irish to hang around and keep things within striking distance. Thanks to two three-point plays Notre Dame outscored Arizona 8-2, but it could have been even tighter. The Irish hit just 4-of-8 freebies during a stretch that the Wildcats could not keep from fouling.
Any remaining Irish hopes were effectively dashed courtesy of a 16-3 run. Walton and Gardner scored the first 12 points of the burst, but Adams finished it in grand style. First the freshman finished a break with a highlight-worthy one hand slam and then hung onto an Iguodala no-look, behind the back pass, and put it in to give the Wildcats an 81-58 lead.
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