It wasn't easy, but Cats beat the Aggies

BOISE – It wasn't easy, but the Wildcats did what they needed to do and escaped the first round of the NCAA Tournaments with a 66-53 win over a pesky Utah State team. The Cats used a strong second half to get past the Big West Tournament Champions and advance the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Most knowledgeable Wildcat fans felt a little uneasy on Selection Sunday when they saw that Utah State was pitted against them. After all the Big West team had six seniors and a recent tradition of Tournament appearances.

"They are not a 14-seed and we knew that coming in," said Wildcat coach Lute Olson of the Aggies.

The Aggies play a deliberate style of play that had coach Stew Morril learned from his mentor former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote. It is a similar style to what Stanford tries to do.

It was truly the tale of two halves for the Cats. After a close first 20 minutes of play the Cats upped their defensive intensity and did a better job hitting the boards.

The Aggies are one of the nation's best shooting teams, but were limited to just 26.7% shooting in the critical second half and shot just 36.4% for the contest.

"They are long and they are quick," admitted Utah State coach Stew Morrill. "It's a challenge to score against the type of size and quickness."

The Wildcats did a better job on the offensive end as well. After a poor shooting first half the Cats went inside more and knocked down a solid 54.5% of their shots.

Channing Frye was huge. The senior center scored 17 points and ripped down 10 rebounds. He also blocked five shots and altered a number more.

"I was just trying to be a force in the middle and challenge every shot," Frye said. "I didn't get everything, but I changed some shots, too."

Fellow senior Salim Stoudamire also added 17 points. Like Frye, he was big in the second half. He hit two of his three three-pointers in the second, including one that put the Cats up by double figures for the first time at 50-39.

Part of the defensive improvement came from extending the defensive pressure earlier. The Wildcats picked up the pressure in the back court. It was not quite the full-court press, but it did enough to disrupt things for the Aggies and help speed up the pace.

The first half couldn't have gone any better for the Aggies. They kept the pace slow and limited possessions. The up-tempo Wildcats could not establish their offense and had to go far too deep in the shot clock before getting off a shot.

Utah State did a great job denying Stoudamire and Frye good looks in the first 20:00. The two were just 4-of-11 in the first frame.

The Wildcats stormed out in the second half, opening up with a 16-2 run. Frye got things started with an old fashioned three-point play. After an Ivan Radenovic miss, Frye grabbed the board, spun and got the bucket and the foul. After that the Cats went inside a few more times before freeing up Stoudamire for a three and a mid-range two. Adams closed out the drive with two lay-ins to put the Cats up 11.

The Aggies scored eight straight, but the Cats answered with another 8-0 run. Rodgers halted the Aggie run with a three from the top of the key. Frye added two free throws, missing two as well. Stoudamire capped the spurt with a pull-up three.

Utah State hung around, but could not slow down Arizona enough to climb back in.

The Aggies were resilient, even with their best player struggling with an illness. Spencer Nelson fought a respiratory problem that had plagued him for a few weeks but could not manage more than six points and three rebounds.

Arizona got 10 points from both Adams and Rodgers. They will meet the winner of UAB/LSU on Saturday with a birth in the Sweet 16 at stake.

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