"I think both teams played with a lot of passion and heart," said Lute Olson following his first loss in Madison Square Garden.
Arizona opened up the game strong with an 11-0 run, holding Wake Forest to scoreless through the first 3:42. The Arizona lead would be as high as 12 points in the first half. The Cats led 35-23 before a three pointer by Wake Forest's Taron Downey, and a three point play by Eric Williams cut down on the lead late in the half. Salim Stoudamire added in a quick two and the score was 37-29 at halftime.
At this point it seemed as though Arizona may pull the upset. In the first half they shot 40% from the field compared to Wake Forest's 34.6%. Arizona truly stepped up the defense forcing 17 turnovers in the game. Unfortunately, these turnovers only resulted in seven points for the Cats.
Arizona had a rough stretch in the second half, shooting only 23% from the field. The two teams traded baskets for a period of time before a 21-5 run by Wake Forest gave them a 59-51 lead.
"You can't shoot 23% [in the second half] and win games…I think we're better shooters than that," said Olson.
Despite giving up such an impressive run, Arizona did not give up. They showed their heart and pulled within one point late in the game. Shakur missed a driving lay-up with just over a second left, and the upset hopes had been lost despite playing such a great game.
The telling statistics in the game were free-throws and turnovers. Arizona only got to the stripe three times in the game compared to Wake Forest's 25 attempts. This was a number too big to overcome. Arizona only committed 8 turnovers compared to Wake Forest's 17, but the Cats were unable to capitalize.
"We have to figure out a way to get fouled," Olson said. "When we go to the line three times and they go to the line 25 times, you better have a lot of other things working for you when that happens."
Hassan Adams and Stoudamire had excellent performances. Adams added 19 points and eight rebounds while Stoudamire added 16 points of his own. However, the rest of the team was not as strong.
Ivan Radenovic Mustafa Shakur had rough nights shooting the ball going a combined 2 for 23 on the night. However, other areas of their performances is where they shined. Radenovic added five rebounds, five assists, and three steals while Shalkur added six assists and two steals.
"Mustafa played 34 minutes with no turnovers and six assists," Olson explained. "That‘s a solid game. He didn‘t shoot the ball well, but his floor game was good."
Arizona has many positives to take from this game, and it should provide a strong learning experience. They played 40 full minutes, and they played 40 minutes well. However, sometimes it is not enough to get the win. That's what happened tonight. Despite having a good game in nearly all aspects, they were unable to win.
"From my standpoint it's a case of playing the No. 1 team in the country, and we really had a legitimate chance of winning," Olson said.
Arizona should look at this loss as motivation in that they took the best team in the nation down to the wire. In addition, it should be motivation to get better. If the Cats were to improve the number of times they get to the line, they will be a force to be reckoned with.
"Its disappointing but it isn't because the guys didn't play hard," said Olson.
To quote White Men Can't Jump, "Sometimes when you win, you actually lose. Sometimes when you lose, you actually win. And sometimes when you win or lose you actually tie."
Despite losing this game in terms of points scored, there are much more positives to be taken away, which will provide more motivation and more learning than a win could. Good rebounding, excellent defense, great passing, and a good job holding onto the ball. If Arizona focuses on what needs to change, rather than the loss, they can only get better.
"I told our players, we build on this," explained Olson.