COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENTS : Arizona Guards Silence Critics, 92-72 : West Regional: Stoudamire (27 points) and Reeves (26) fuel victory over Missouri.
They run, they jump, they have the conscience of a used car salesman when they shoot, and they are in the Final Four.
They are the Arizona Wildcats, saviors of the Pacific 10 and the best team in the West after blowing out Missouri, 92-72, Saturday to win the West Regional before 15,517 at the Sports Arena.
They are also pretty excited.
“I’m so fired up it’s pathetic,” center Joseph Blair said.
It’s easy to see why. The Wildcats made up for back-to-back first-round NCAA tournament defeats the last two years and earned a trip to the Final Four for the first time since 1988.
The Wildcats (29-5) will play the winner of today’s Midwest Regional final between Arkansas and Michigan.
Either way, Arizona seems pretty confident after knocking off Big Eight champion Missouri, which was seeded No. 1 in the West.
“This was no fluke,” Blair said. “We’re not the weak, pansy West team. We’re out to kick some butt.”
Confidence and jump shots flowed freely at the Sports Arena, where Arizona’s point-snuffing defense and its backcourt of Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves ended Missouri’s season.
Stoudamire made four three-pointers in the first half and wound up with 27 points, which went along nicely with the 26 points by Reeves.
“They can flat-out light you up,” Arizona Coach Lute Olson said. “And they did.”
There was more to Arizona’s success than Stoudamire and Reeves. Most notable was the Wildcat defense, directed by Olson and produced mainly by Reggie Geary, who held Melvin Booker to 14 points in 35 minutes.
So dominant was Arizona that Missouri got no closer than eight points in the second half.
The Wildcats, who led by 48-34 at the midway point thanks to Stoudamire’s 18 points in 20 minutes, saw the Tigers claw to within 52-44 on Paul O’Liney’s three-pointer.
That was as close as Missouri got. Blair scored from close range, Geary tipped in a missed shot and Reeves converted a Booker turnover into a breakaway layup and quickly Arizona was out of sight again, 58-44.
“The air was out of their balloon,” Geary said. “You could just tell.”
Yes, it really did start to get sort of disheartening, Booker said.
“We couldn’t make the key plays,” he said. “They made the key plays to get (the lead) back up. We knocked on the door, but we couldn’t get in.”
Missouri (28-4) spent most of the game missing shots. The Tigers made only 29 of 83 field goal attempts and were seven for 33 from long distance.
Coach Norm Stewart said Arizona’s defense was partly responsible, but then so was lousy shooting.
“It wasn’t to be,” he said.
And what was to be? How about an Arizona victory, one that the Wildcats used to silence those who dared to point out their recent shortcomings in the tournament.
“You guys have labeled us a choke team,” Geary told reporters in the Arizona locker room. “It’s basically Arizona versus the world. We like that.”
Olson was equally direct, spending nearly as much time chastising the media as savoring the victory.
“I’m tremendously proud of this group of guys who have been doubted and questioned and called chokers and losers and the rest of it,” Olson said.
“There’s nothing in my mind that can feel better right at this point than for them to just take it and put it in the appropriate place.”
Missouri might have fared a little better if it had spent slightly more time in the appropriate place, such as on defense, according to Stoudamire.
“Missouri is a team we thought was a little slow getting back,” Stoudamire said. “We were getting a lot of pull-up jumpers, four-on-twos, three-on-twos . . . Missouri was a step slow in transition and that was probably the main difference in the game.”
Maybe so, but there were more differences. Arizona played Missouri evenly on the backboards, even though Blair and Kevin Flanagan were in foul trouble in the first half.
Missouri’s main inside threat, 6-foot-9, 242-pound Jevon Crudup, had 14 points and six rebounds, but he fouled out after 27 minutes.
Blair said he was not sorry to see him depart, even though it was 69-53 at that point.
“He is a big old fella,” Blair said. “He’s not some little missy.”
Stoudamire is not a big old fella, not at 5-11 and 162 pounds, but he knew he had to play big if Arizona was going to Charlotte. That’s why he showed up at the Sports Arena at 8 a.m. to practice his jumper, the one that had been so errant in the victory Thursday night over Louisville.
“I was dedicating myself to this day,” he said.
It was a good choice. Stoudamire shot four three-pointers in the first half and made them all, the ball barely rippling the net each time.
Blair, who has seen it before, still liked it. “At times, he is amazing to me,” he said.
Arizona’s lead grew to 88-61 on two free throws by Reeves with 2:59 to go and all that was left was for Blair to dance in front of the Arizona bench as the clock wound down.
He did the same dance after Arizona’s 71-58 victory over Virginia in the second-round game at Sacramento. At that time, he called the dance his “Sweet-16, I’m-happy, we’re-not-a-soft-team-from-the-West-anymore, let’s-win-it-all dance.”
Blair decided to shorten the name of the dance Saturday.
“It’s the Blair Bump,” he said.