Jason Gardner hit a late 23-footer and four clutch free throws to help Arizona pull off a close win in Pullman but not before experiencing some very familiar problems throughout the game.
Arizona continued its pattern of playing well for only one half again against Washington State but chose the right half to do so as it defeated the Cougars for the 33rd consecutive time, 92-85.
On a night in which several Wildcats sat on the bench in foul trouble, it was the steady hand of Luke Walton that made sure Washington State wouldn't end its 32-game losing streak to the Cats.
Walton finished with 15 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds. Not bad considering it was his first game back after sitting out the last three with an Achilles' injury.
Now if only Arizona could get Rick Anderson to actually NOT foul out of a game (which he did for the sixth time again tonight), the Cats would really be rolling.
The Cats had several opportunities to put the game to bed during both halves but wound up making critical mistakes that cost them a chance at the blowout. Washington State, to its credit, showed a ton of heart in fighting back from multiple double-digit deficits and had a chance to win with less than a minute to play.
However, it was because of foul problems that Arizona couldn't pull away from the Cougars.
In the first half, Anderson, Frye and Fox all got into foul trouble and that allowed Cougar center J Locklier to explode for 20 points and eight rebounds before halftime.
"(Locklier) had his career high in the first half," Lute Olson said of Cougar's center who's previous high was 19 points. "and he ended the game with 27 points. We just did a terrible job of defending the post."
The two reasons that Arizona was able to overcome both foul problems and sloppy play were Gardner and Walton.
Gardner again proved that he is one of America's premier players as he had 23 points, five assists and three steals, but more importantly was the timing of when he scored his points.
Against Oregon State, Gardner scored 14 of his 34 points in the last three minutes and tonight against the Cougars he tallied nine of his team-high 23 points in the final two minutes.
Without the play of its two juniors, Arizona would have lost this game. Walton makes the offense go and Gardner finishes games off and hits key shots at key times.
As a team, Arizona had a season-high six players in double figures and that may have been the best sign of the night.
The thought here is that once Arizona gets Walton back for an extended amount of time and learns to play positional defense and avoid touch fouls, this will be a very tough team to beat.
Salim Stoudamire continued his hot shooting with 13 points on 4-5 shooting (4-4 free throws) and showed he's more than a shooter by scoring three baskets on layups and dunks thanks to feeds from Walton. Besides Rick Anderson, it is Stoudamire (who cuts more than any other Wildcat) who benefits from Walton's presence the most.
Isaiah Fox had his best game in more than a month with 10 points and five rebounds, including two free throws with less than ten seconds to play that iced the game. While Channing Frye has clearly established himself as the team's starting center, the improved play of Fox of the bench is vital to Arizona's success. In fact, Locklier was far less effective against the bigger, stronger Fox than he was against Frye.
Will Bynum made some more freshman mistakes but made up for it with a Richard Jefferson-like alley-oop dunk that left many Cat fans breathless at his athleticism. He looked more comfortable on his shot once again but continues to drive in too far and get his shot blocked.
So Arizona wins its 33rd straight against Washington State, Jason Gardner once again plays like an All-American and the freshmen show continued improvement.
And, oh yeah, Luke Walton is back.
With Luke and Jason in the lineup, the Cats found a way to win.
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