"I'm shocked. I was just hoping we could make a good ball game out of it," said Lute Olson, who improved to 16-3 in season openers, and 8-0 in encounters at neutral sites. "I knew we had good competitors, but to beat a team like Maryland was a shock to me. I told the players regardless of the outcome, come back into the locker room and look in the mirror and know you competed as hard as you could."
The Wildcats kept the nation's second-ranked team close at hand for the first 20 minutes.
After trading baskets in the game's early stages, Juan Dixon drained a three-pointer against Arizona's 1-2-2 zone, and Maryland opened up a 13-9 lead. Jason Gardner, one of three Wildcat juniors, took an assist from fellow third-year standout Luke Walton, cutting the Terrapin lead to 17-13 at the 12-minute mark of the first half.
Dixon buried another three to boost the Maryland advantage to 20-13. Two Wildcat buckets trimmed the margin to 20-18. Freshman Salim Stoudamire drained a three-pointer from beyond the NBA stripe at the top of the key. Then Gardner stole a Terrapin pass in the open court and converted with a game-tying layup on the other end.
Gardner drove to the hole and converted a difficult layup as the UA captured a brief 30-29 lead with 3:30 remaining in the first half.
Maryland dominated the first half on the glass, but failed to convert free throw opportunities.
"(Maryland) just killed us on the boards in the first," Arizona assistant coach Rodney Tention said. "They had 12 offensive rebounds."
Meanwhile, Walton found Gardner along the left side for a three-pointer as Arizona captured its largest lead, 33-29. However, Maryland answered with a pair of buckets, highlighted by an emphatic Lonny Baxter dunk, and the teams entered the locker room tied at 33.
"I think we've done some things well, but we're far too impatient offensively," Olson told ESPN at the half. "We're not doing a good job getting our big guys back. We've been changing up between man and zone, and the guys we've been confusing most are our own."
Gardner led the Wildcats with 14 points at the break.
Stoudamire took charge early in the second half with two buckets in the first four minutes, and Arizona led by as many as four early.
Walton also helped the cause. After pressing a bit in the first half, Walton appeared much more poised, and delivered consecutive assists before the second half's initial timeout.
Steve Blake drained a three to tie the game at 45 with 14 minutes remaining.
The Wildcats built a five-point advantage at the 12-minute mark when Stoudamire twined his 10th point of the night, and the Wildcat's seventh field goal in 11 second-half attempts. A Gardner three capped a 12-0 run as the UA built its largest lead, 53-45, with 10 minutes to go.
Then Maryland stormed back. A Dixon three cut into the lead, but a Walton follow gave the UA a 55-48 advantage with 8:45 left. Dixon answered with another three, his 19th point of the night, and Maryland trimmed the margin to 55-51, prompting an Olson timeout with 8:12 to play. Baxter converted an alley-oop on the next possession.
Blake's three-pointer off a steal gave Maryland its first lead of the half. Another Baxter bucket off a steal upped the Terrapin margin to three, but Anderson managed a breakaway layup on the other end to briefly stop the bleeding.
"I was impressed with Maryland and their veteran play," Olson said."They hurt us with what they had, and on the inside. I didn't think we did a good job with spacing against their press, but we'll get better."
Anderson hit a runner with 4:04 to go, and Arizona recaptured the lead at 61-60. Baxter converted one of two free throw attempts to tie the game with 3:30 remaining, but the Terrapins were unable to get over the top again.
Arizona broke the press following the timeout, and Walton found Gardner, who hit the three-pointer and free throw as the UA led 65-61 with 3:13 left. It proved to be the critical play of the game.
"There's absolutely no question (about Gardner's competitive nature), and he was anxious to play against Blake," Olson said. "He's been looking forward to this matchup. Jason is such a tremendous competitor, and such a winner."
Dixon, saddled with four fouls, hit a bank shot on Maryland's next possession, and Anderson was whistled for an offensive foul. Blake bricked a three, and on the fastbreak, freshman Will Bynum sank a runner. Howeer, Maryland answered on the other end to cut the Wildcat lead to two with two minutes left.
A Fox's follow off his own missed shot gave the UA a 69-65 lead in the final minute. Maryland missed a three with 32 seconds left. Arizona turned the ball over, and Maryland managed another bucket to trim the lead to two with 4.6 seconds remaining. Then Anderson sealed the deal with two free throws with three seconds left.
"We did a much better job defensively in the second half," Tention said. "(Maryland) only had six offensive boards and we were more patient offensively ourselfs."
Gardner led Arizona with 23 points. He also added four assists,five rebounds and three steals. Walton contributed 12 points and 12 rebounds. Stoudamire had 12 points and Anderson finished with 10.
The UA faces Florida, which upended Temple, in winner's bracket action Friday at 7 pm, Mountain Standard Time Friday night.
If you would like to read a great follow-up column by thethrill22, one of regulars on the basketball message board, take this link: