Player of the Game: Jason Gardner

ALBUQUERQUE, NM--Maybe it was his first dunk that spurred Jason Gardner into his best-ever NCAA Tournament performance, or maybe it was the fact that Arizona was on the verge of being eliminated that brought out the best in him. Either way, Gardner put the Cats on his back and led them to victory and onto Saturday's second round.

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Arizona played about as well as my sister's eight grade girl's basketball team in the first half, turning the ball over nine times, shooting 30% and letting some schmoe named Hull score like Jordan. The funny thing is that I have no sister…THAT'S how bad Arizona was in the first 20 minutes. It was like they didn't even exist.

Ah, but wait. One person showed up. The same guy who never goes away, no matter what some of his past statlines might have said. Jason Gardner, who is slowly but surely etching his name next to Sean Elliott, Miles Simon and Damon Stoudamire in terms of all-time greats, was the only Wildcat in the first half who kept UC-Santa Barbara from pulling off a huge first-round upset.

While the rest of his teammates struggled (yes, even—gasp!— Luke Walton), Gardner put the team on his back (this is getting to be a habitual thing) and kept Arizona within 35-32 at halftime.

In the second half, Gardner came out and immediately let the 14th-seeded Gauchos know whose game this was. He nailed a three-pointer to open the second half scoring and then proceeded to 13 more points in the final 20 minutes to finish with a personal NCAA-high of 28 points. For his absolute refusal to let his team exit the tournament early, Jason Gardner is tonight's Player of the Game.

"We had watched a lot of film on him before this game," Gaucho "schmoe" Mark Hull said. "And we knew he was really good. After playing him tonight it just affirmed what we already knew. He's a very good player."

The 5-10 junior from Indianapolis, who is a career .222 three-point shooter in the Big Dance, made four of seven treys and six of ten shots overall from the field. Add those numbers to his impressive 12-14 performance at the free throw line and you get the 28-point total.

"I thought Jason played a great game tonight," head coach Lute Olson said. "The key to the second half was ball and player movement. In the first half we shot 32 percent and the second we shot 59 percent. The difference between those numbers had to do with movement. Jason did a great job of moving without the ball and then making his shots."

Gardner was as fiery and competitive as he's ever been against the Gauchos, particularly early in the second half. He was seen yelling at teammates and showing what kind of vocal leader he has developed into over the course of this season with the freshman-laden team.

"I think first round games are the hardest," Gardner said. "You have to get used to the gym and stuff. I feel like I'm used to all of this, the big games, the tournament. I know what goes on but we have a young team and I just try to keep the guys together along with Luke (Walton) and Ricky (Anderson)."

Walton agreed with Gardner.

"Jason did a great job of making sure that in the second half they weren't going to make a comeback and get a win," he said. "That's why he's an All-American. He put us on his back again tonight and did what he had to do to help us move on."

Olson may have said it best with his opening statement to the media.

"It's pretty obvious that this is a matter of survival," he said. "And we survived. Not by much, but we survived."

If for no other reason than because Jason Gardner simply won't allow this team (his team) to lose.

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