December 3, 2006
Second half effort pushes Arizona to victory
Arizona overcame a 16-point first half deficit to beat Illinois in the Hall of Fame Challenge by the score of 84-72.
Saturday's game was much closer than the score shows but it was the strongest performance from this year's version of the Wildcats.
Arizona fans will savor this victory not only because of the feelings of revenge for 2005's brutal Elite Eight loss at the hands of Illinois, but because of the heart that head coach Lute Olson's team showed in toughing out the victory.
Freshman Chase Budinger put in an impressive performance on national television with a team-high 22 points and eight rebounds as every Wildcat starter scored in double figures.
Both teams came out pumped in the first half and the going was pretty even for the first few three minutes.
Then Illinois began to take over, led by Walter Carter, who finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds despite foul trouble throughout the second half. Carter sparked the Illini to the early 16 point lead.
Arizona's defense took a while to settle in and through the first ten minutes they had trouble rotating to the weak side and getting through screens. The Cats also had trouble with shooting and rebounding early, notching only one rebound in the first nine minutes of action.
It looked as if Arizona was overmatched by the Illini, especially down in the post where Carter and Shaun Pruitt had no problem getting open and then scoring once they received the ball. Pruitt had 11 points and Carter contributed 12 in first half play.
The Wildcats started shifting the momentum of the game with 5:30 left in the first half and rode a 17-6 scoring run into halftime to end the half down 36-41.
In the second half, Arizona came out a little flat, missing some shots and making a bad decision or two, but the quickly turned that around and became the aggressors, especially Mustafa Shakur.
Shakur really pushed the ball in the second half and was very aggressive going to the basket. As a result, Illinois started to run into foul trouble early in the second half with four starters, including Carter and Pruitt, with four fouls within the first seven minutes of the half. Shakur ended a great game with 16 points and eight assists.
Arizona took its first lead of the game since the three-minute mark in the first half on a Marcus Williams lay-up with 12:51 remaining.
The Wildcats led most of the rest of the way, but weren't able to stretch beyond five points until late. The game was finally sealed by Budinger when he converted a fast break lay-up even as the Illini's Richard McBride intentionally fouled him.
Saturday's contest was definitely the most exciting so far this season and it was a great indicator of how Arizona might be able to play under post-season conditions. Despite early troubles, the Wildcats hung tough and scratched and clawed their way back into the came, no pun intended.
The defense looked more solid than it has all season and was the reason the Cats were able to keep the game close and eventually stretch the lead.
Arizona's starters didn't really seem fatigued at the end of the game but it still would have been nice to see the bench contribute a little more. That said it is unlikely that the Wildcats would have been able to pull this one out had the bench seen more playing time.
Arizona will try to win its sixth in a row Tuesday night against Louisville in the Jimmy V. Classic.
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