Cats hold off Illini

PHOENIX - It was a game eerily reminiscent of Saturday's Kansas game. Two top-10 teams battling in an early season showdown, one team jumping out to a large first half lead only to watch the eventual loser battle back and make things interesting. Arizona held on to beat Illinois 87-82 at America West Arena.

It was a foul-plagued battle that saw the two teams combine for 54 fouls and 34 turnovers.

Arizona survived a slow start by Jason Gardner and foul trouble by Luke Walton and Ricky Anderson to upset the fifth ranked Illini. Despite being held scoreless until the 7:25 mark of the first half, Gardner led the Cats with 23-points.

"Corey (Bradford) did a good job on (Jason) Gardner in the first half," said Illinois coach Bill Self.

Frank Williams also had a late surge, scoring nine of his 30 points in the game's final minute. Williams also dished out four assists and paced the Illini comeback.

"We could never stop Frankie Williams," said Arizona coach Lute Olson. "You can see what kind of winner he is by the way he took over down the stretch."

Early on neither team could settle into an offensive flow. In the opening moments there were more fouls than baskets, a trend that continued. With just over 2:00 off the clock the teams had been whistled for seven fouls.

Illinois were the first club to get on track. Frank Williams led the charge and helped his team build a 13-7 lead.

Luke Walton brought the Wildcats right back. Following an Anderson three, Walton stole two passes at the top of the key. The Arizona junior converted both fast breaks, the first on an old-fashioned three-point play and then on an Illini goal tending violation.

With the game now tied the Wildcats took control and methodically built a lead by working hard on the offensive boards and taking advantage of numerous Illinois turnovers. Gardner had been shut down early, but his first field goal gave Arizona a 30-22 lead midway through the half.

Olson used a wide variety of line-ups, including sitting Anderson and Walton for a long stretch and relying on four freshmen on the floor at the same time. The Cats not only survived the stretch, but flourished, going up by as many as 11 points.

The Illini dented the lead, cutting it to five, but the Cats surged back and pulled away. The Cats relied on a three-guard line-up to near perfection. The unit nailed three late three-pointers and built themselves a 44-31 halftime lead.

"I told our guys at halftime that they better keep playing, because this Illinois team is a team that is not going to quit," Olson said.

The Cats came out of the locker room strong. Gardner hit a pair of quick threes and an Anderson bomb gave the Wildcats a 58-39 lead just four and a half minutes into the half.

Just as things looked bleakest for Illinois, the Illini battled back. The veteran squad buckled down on defense and righted themselves on offense. With Williams leading the way the Illini went on a 20-6 run, cutting the lead to 64-59.

"Second half I thought our effort was great," said Self. "I thought we executed well."

The Cats held on down the stretch, but could never shake Illinois. Arizona got the lead to 10, 72-62, on a Dennis Latimore lay-in. However, Williams came down and hit a quick three pointer, cutting the lead to seven with 4:20 to play.

Like in both Arizona wins over Illinois last season, the Illini made a late run using the three-point shot and pressure defense. Williams scored 13 points in the last two minutes, including two three-pointers in the final minute, but it wasn't enough as the Cats connected on 6-of-9 free throws in the same time span.

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