Sean Elliott, Arizona’s All-American forward, has two operational modes. When the Wildcats face inferior opposition, Elliott is efficient. But when Arizona faces a good team, Elliott is extraordinary.
The 6-foot 8-inch senior was in his extraordinary mode when Arizona met Oregon State in the semifinals of the Pacific 10 Conference basketball tournament Saturday.
Elliott scored 29 points, and the No. 1-ranked Wildcats defeated the Beavers, 98-87, before 10,565 fans at the Forum.
Arizona will play Stanford in the championship game today at 1 p.m. Stanford advanced with a 95-86 win over UCLA.
Stanford handed Arizona its only conference loss this season, beating the Wildcats, 83-78, in Palo Alto. Stanford also beat the Wildcats last season.
Elliott has averaged just 16 points in nine games against mediocre teams, but he has averaged 27 points against teams headed for postseason play.
How do you explain it?
“I don’t know how you explain it,” Elliott said. “That’s my style.”
“Sean’s by far the best big game player I’ve ever coached,” Arizona Coach Lute Olson said. “I’m not sure there’s ever been a better big-game player. Would you rather have him ready for the lesser teams or the good teams?”
Elliott was ready for Oregon State.
He scored 21 points in the first half, hitting six of nine shots from the floor, including two three pointers, and made seven of eight free throws.
Elliott wasn’t the only Wildcat who shot well.
Arizona shot 71.4% from the floor in the first half, making 20 of 28 shots. It was a sudden turnaround from Friday, when the Wildcats shot poorly in a 62-54 quarterfinal win over Washington State.
What caused the turnaround?
The answer is simple, Olson said. The Forum was too cold.
“This place was like an igloo yesterday,” Olson said. “Every team complained about the same thing. We had guys who were blowing on their hands to beat the frostbite. It was a lot warmer in Alaska than it was in here.
“It’s fine if they want to keep the ice (under the floor) cold, but they don’t have to keep blowing air-conditioning on our heads from up above.”
“It was freezing out there on the court yesterday,” he said. “At the end of the game, it was so cold that it felt like we were just barely warming up.”
The Forum was warmer Saturday, and so was Arizona.
The Wildcats shot a season-high 67.2%, with center Anthony Cook hitting 11 of 12 shots to set a Pac-10 tournament record. Cook had 24 points, including 15 in the first half.
“I felt confident today,” Cook said. “Everyone was shooting well. If our outside and inside is working, then we’re hard to defend.”
Arizona (26-3) was dominating inside as the Wildcats won for the 18th time in the last 19 games. They made 16 of 18 shots inside the key against Oregon State.
Oregon State, whose forte is outside shooting, didn’t shoot as well as Arizona.
Gary Payton, Oregon State’s All-Pac-10 point guard, missed 13 of 21 shots, Guard Eric Knox, who got into early foul trouble, missed 11 of 20 shots.
Why did Payton and Knox shoot so poorly? “It (getting into foul trouble) hurt us because both Gary and I were shooting well (early) and that took me out of the game and let them concentrate on Gary,” Knox said.
Leading 27-26, the Wildcats blitzed the Beavers, 25-12, in the final 9:27 of the first half to take a 50-38 lead by halftime. Elliott had 13 points in the spurt.
Arizona led by as many as 22 points before Oregon State rallied behind Payton (25 points) and Knox (23).
Oregon State Coach Ralph Miller wasn’t surprised that Arizona was so dominant.
“They’re a good team with no weaknesses,” Miller said. “They’re the type of team that takes advantage of all your mistakes. For us to have won this game we would have had to have played a perfect game.”
Oregon State (22-7) wasn’t anywhere near perfect.