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However, after that it was all Arizona. The Wildcats scored 19 of the final 23 points to turn away the spirited upset bid.
Channing Frye was the spark the Cats needed. Arizona Coach Lute Olson actually sat the Wildcat big man early in the second half, but Frye responded as the game progressed. Frye scored 17 of his game-high 26 points in the final 15 minutes and single-handedly kept the Wildcats in the game.
"I just had to step up," Frye said. "I needed to step up for my team. This was one of those opportunities to step up and be a leader."
Olson was pleased with Frye's performance late, but did indeed sit him down to try and light a fire.
"Usually he plays hard, but defensively I didn't know what was wrong with him," Olson confessed. "He looked tired."
It was Frye who brought the Cats back, but it was Salim Stoudamire who sealed the win. Stoudamire scored four in a row to get the Cats within striking distance. He hit a pair of free throws then picked the pocket of Rowland and raced for a lay-in that would put the Cats within one.
"It was a big lay-up," Stoudamire dead-panned.
On the next possession the Cats ran a high screen and Andre Iguodala found Frye alone for an easy basket.
"Dre told me to go to the hoop and I slipped in for the score," Frye said.
The Gaels nearly pulled the upset by knocking down three-point shots and making the extra pass, something the Wildcats did not do. Arizona played without much emotion, but just as much credit has to go to Saint Mary's.
The Gaels normally shoot just 31 percent from behind the arc, but made 7-of-16 long balls, shooting almost 12 percent over their average. In the first half they got open look after open look and made the big shots.
"Anyone can sit outside and make threes when they are wide-open," Frye said. "We left them open and they exploited it."
In the first half the Gael guards drove the lane and dished to the open man on the perimeter. In the second half the Cats took that away but Rowland and Paul Marigney were able to get good looks down low. All six of Marigney's second half points came from attacking the hoop. Likewise, Rowland scored three times when driving the lane.
The Gaels took an early 7-2 lead thanks in large part to Frederic Adjiwanou's ability to get to the foul line. The 6-8 forward scored Saint Mary's first four points from the charity stripe. He finished the game with 17 points and 11 rebounds.
The Cats looked flat early on and they never did match St. Mary's intensity.
"I'm sick and tired of that excuse," Stoudamire said about the lack of intensity early. "We're grown men. We've got to play every game like it's our last.
Hassan Adams responded for the Wildcats. He scored five straight, including a three-pointer and an alley-oop dunk that put the Wildcats up 9-7.
Adams had 23 points and six rebounds. He was 10-of-17 from the floor and snagged four offensive boards.
The Cats went to the press and succeeded in building up a modest five-point lead, but the Gaels responded in rapid fashion and tied the game on a three-pointer. The next four minutes saw the lead change hands seven times as both clubs were effective on the offensive end. Arizona was able to use its team speed to get good looks inside, while Saint Mary's was equally effective beyond the arc.
Arizona built some breathing room by utilizing one of its patented runs. The Cats trailed 32-31 but rattled off nine in a row. Frye gave the Cats the lead with a hook shot and Adams added a three-point play after Stoudamire made 1-of-2 free throws. Stoudamire ended the scoring spurt with a three from the wing.
But the run did not put the Gaels away. In reality it seemed to wake them up. Following a timeout the Gaels scored 11-of-13 to tie the game at the half, 41-41. The run continued as the Gaels outscored Arizona 10-3 to start the second half and following a Marigney lay-in St. Mary's led 51-44.
Arizona finally tied the game with 7:36 to play. The UA got the steal and Stoudamire found a streaking Adams for a breakaway jam. However, it was Frye who brought the Wildcats back as he scored 10 of the team's 18 points as they slowly clawed back to tie the contest.
The feisty Gaels did not lay down and die. Instead they went back to the outside and hit a pair of three-pointers en route to a 12-3 run that gave them a nine-point lead with just under five minutes to play.
Things looked bleak, but after that it was all Arizona. The Wildcats outscored the Gaels 19-4 and sealed the contest with 5-of-6 free throw shooting in the final minute.
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