Arizona Tops 'Cats, Wins NIT

Incoming Hamas Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh waves to journalists after his meeting with leaders from Palestinian factions in Gaza city Monday March 13, 2006.
AP Photo/Hatem Moussa

Coach Lute Olson didn't have to see a boxscore to place an assessment on No. 8 Arizona's 63-51 victory over No. 11 Kentucky Friday night in the finals of the Preseason NIT.

"Not pretty," he said.

He had that right.

Arizona won its third Preseason NIT title, surviving a night of erratic shooting for both teams after No. 24 Maryland hung on for a 72-67 victory over Notre Dame in the consolation game. Lonny Baxter topped the Terps with 17 points and 14 rebounds. Troy Murphy led all scorers with 25 and had 11 rebounds for the Irish.

Except for tournament MVP Gilbert Arenas, who led all scorers with 20 points, and Richard Jefferson, who had 15, it was a shooting nightmare for Arizona and Kentucky.

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  • In this rematch of the 1997 NCAA tournament championship game won in overtime by Arizona 83-79, neither team looked much like a Final Four candidate. Arizona shot 39.7 for the game but that was better than Kentucky's 35.6.

    "Our ability to score off widespread offense saved us," Olson said. "If anyone told me we'd get only two points from inside men, I would think they were crazy. We still have a lot of work to do. We stood around a lot."

    Arenas, Jefferson and Jason Gardner, who scored 10 points, saved Arizona.They put together an 11-0 run that broke the game open midway through the second half.

    Kentucky could not respond.

    Coach Tubby Smith liked his defense, but not his offense.

    "We held them to 39 percent shooting but our offense was poor," he said. "We gave them the chance in the last minutes of the first half, plus we didn't score. Twenty-five points in a half won't win for you.

    "Then we tried to go freestyle and their defense took care of that."
    Both Arizona (4-0) and Kentucky (3-1) were struggling with their shooting until midway through the second half. Leading 35-33, Arizona suddenly began finding the range.

    Consecutive three-point plays by Jefferson and Arenas started the run. Then, after another basket by Jefferson, Gardner added an exclamation point to the run with a 3-pointer and just like that, Arizona had a 46-33 lead.

    After that, Arenas and Gardner, the freshman backcourt tandem, kept Arizona in charge.

    "We've never had two like them coming in at the same time," Olson said. "They don't play like freshmen."

    Jefferson and Arenas avoided the shooting woes. Jefferson missed just three of 10 shots and Arenas hit six of 10.

    Tayshaun Prince led Kentucky with 18 points but shot just 7-of-18. Desmond Allison added 12 for the losers, who made just 21 of 59 shots from the floor.

    "Price tried to carry us but seven of 18 shooting isn't going to do us any good," Smith said.

    Over and over, shots banged harmlessly off the backboards or the rims as neither team could find any consistency on offense. Arizona led 29-25 at halftime, shooting just 32.3 from the field.

    Typical of the shooting frustration was a sequence in the second half when Arizona's Luke Walton, son of basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton, made a basket on his third attempt after grabbing rebounds of his first two missed shots. His next basket, however, came on his next shot.

    The championship gave Arizona another Preseason NIT sweep. Olson's Wildcats won the title in 1990, beating Arkansas in the final, and again in 1995 when they beat Georgetown for the championship.

    Arizona has won 12 straight games in this tournament after being eliminated in the first round of their first appearance by Nevada-Las Vegas in 1986.

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