Jason Gardner, who had missed badly on his previous three-point attempts, took a pass from Salim Stoudamire and launched the ball from well past NBA range, extending his legs as he did so. Unfortunately for Valparaiso, a defender collided with the airborne Gardner, knocking him to the ground as his 27-footer snapped the net for three points.
Gardner reacted to the furious eruption of cheers from the McKale Center crowd with a display of enthusiasm rarely seen this season at Arizona. He stood up, pumping his arms in the air and let out a roar of his own, letting everyone in attendance both in person and in the television audience know just who's game this was.
Of course, it was Jason Gardner's game.
What made the play so dramatic wasn't the fact that it was from so deep nor was it the fact that he wound up converting the accompanying free throw to complete the four-point play. What was so big was realizing that he hit that shot with Arizona trailing Valpo 68-67 with only 1:28 remaining in the game. After he made the free throw, Arizona had a 71-68 lead and it never trailed again.
"When Jason hit that three, that was the turning point of the game," said fellow Wildcat junior Rick Anderson. "He really stepped it up."
The Wildcat program may have had more talented point guards than Jason Gardner (Mike Bibby), it may have had better shooting points than Gardner (Steve Kerr) and it may have had better all-around lead guards than Gardner (Damon Stoudamire). What Arizona has never had at point guard, however, is a more clutch player than Jason Gardner. He plays with ice coursing through his veins and seems nearly impervious to the kinds of pressure that would cripple most mortal college guards.
Gardner made only four field goals--all three-pointers--but Arizona needed every one of them to pull out the four-point victory against the Crusaders. His final shooting numbers aren't pretty (4-14 from the field; 4-11 from beyond the arc) but what those statistics don't keep track of are baskets under duress. The junior from Indianapolis made all seven of his free throws, including three in the final minute to secure the win for Arizona. That's much more telling of the way Gardner played than his actual statline.
His play was even more important when you throw in the fact that Arizona's primary playmaker, Luke Walton, was on the bench in street clothes nursing an Achilles injury and did not play.
Walton is not the point guard for the Wildcats but he is the steadying force and the one who makes the offense flow more smoothly with his passing and basketball intelligence. Without him on the floor today, the young Wildcats struggled from the beginning.
Arizona had 12 turnovers by halftime and found the score was tied at 31 because it couldn't hold on to the ball.
Arizona did slightly better in terms of not turning the ball over in the second half but still wound up with 18 for the game, most likely because it was without Walton to figure out the Crusaders' confusing 1-2-2 zone defense.
"We missed Luke out there today," Anderson said.
A couple of times about midway through the second half, Arizona found success against the zone by flashing the 6-9 Anderson to the high post for either easy 15-foot shots or inside passes to Dennis Latimore for easy scores.
Anderson had his best game today, finishing with 18 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. However, it was the aggression that Anderson displayed while going after those rebounds that was the most impressive part of his game.
The eleven rebounds Anderson grabbed combined with Channing Frye's ten helped Arizona out-rebound a very physical Valparaiso team.
"I'm wiped out," Anderson said, still breathing heavily after the game. "Valpo's one of the most fundamental teams that we've ever played. They were very tough and it was a nerve racking game."
Nerves. They get to most people.
Apparently just not to Jason Gardner.
You can share your comments with other fans on the basketball message board. To go directly to the board, take this link: