Cory Bradford set an NCAA record with a 3-pointer in his 74th consecutive game, and the Illini beat up on No. 7 Arizona en route to an 81-73 victory Saturday, avenging their loss in the Maui Invitational title game last month.
"There's no question the team that played the hardest for 40 minutes is the team that won," said Arizona coach Lute Olson, back on the bench after missing last weekend's game to be with his wife, Bobbi, who is undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer.
"I think in the last 20 minutes we played extremely well, but the game is not played over 20 minutes. They were tougher both physically and mentally than we were in the first half."
The Illini (8-2) played tough the whole game. Frank Williams went 9-of-10 from the free throw line in the final 3:27 to seal the game despite a strained muscle in his right shoulder that hurt so bad his teammates couldn't even pat him on the back.
Illinois had 27 total fouls.
"The rules committee wanted to come back to being a game of finesse, not a game of hand-to-hand combat," Olson said. "I would say this was hand-to-hand combat. But if that's the way it's being played, that's the way you better play."
Just like last month, when Jason Gardner had to make two free throws with 11 seconds left to preserve Arizona's 79-76 victory at Maui, the victory didn't come easy for Illinis.
After trailing by as many as nine points in the second half, Arizona (5-3) cut the Illinois lead to 78-73 with 16 seconds left on two free throws by Gardner and a basket by Gilbert Arenas. But Arenas missed the free throw shot for the three-point play, and he and Gardner both missed 3-point attempts in the final 15 seconds.
The Illini didn't make a field goal after Marcus Griffin's reverse with 3:52 left, but it didn't matter as they went 15-of-20 from the line. Williams accounted for nine of those points.
"Beating Arizona was a big-time win," Johnson said.
Bradford finished with 13 points, including two more 3-pointers, and all of the Illini starters finished in double figures.
Michael Wright scored 21 for Arizona, which dropped to 0-3 in games at the United Center. The Wildcats also lost at the Great Eight tournament in 1997 and 1999.
It also was the second straight non-conference loss on the road for Arizona. That hadn't happened since 1989-90, when the Wildcats dropped three consecutive non-conference road games.
"I've never been one that believed in playing cupcakes," Olson said. "What good does that do? What we're concerned about is what happens the first week in January. Are we going to be a better team the first week in January because of this game? No question."
The Illini outrebounded Arizona 42-37, and held the Wildcats to 42 percent (27-of-65) shooting. No Illinois opponent has shot better than 45 percent this season.
"People think we must be down or we must not be doing something right," said Loren Woods, who scored 15 points and had a career-high five assists in only his second game since last February. "Illinois was just a better team today."
Trailing 38-32 at the half, the Wildcats started the second half on a tear. Gardner opened with a 3-pointer, and his crosscourt heave set up a Richard Jefferson jam that gave Arizona a 39-38 lead, its first since the opening minutes of the game.
The Illini missed their first seven shots of the half, and didn't score until Bradford's two free throws with 16:14 left.
Woods hit a baseline jumper that tied the score at 43 with 14:37 left, but Arizona made only one more field goal over the next 6 1/2 minutes. Brian Cook scored seven points as Illinois used a 16-6 run to take a 57-49 lead with 7:21 left. Arizona couldn't cut the margin to less than five points the rest of the way.
"I've had the Illini in the top six all along," Olson said. "They've got experience, they've got toughness and they've got shooters."
Do they ever, starting with Bradford. After needing overtime to tie the record it last week, he got it out of the way quickly Saturday, hitting one with 13:43 left in the first half.
The previous record of 73 was set by Virginia Tech's Wally Lancaster from 1986-89.
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