Numb Kind of Arizona Win

Times Staff Writer

It was high drama at high altitude, a college game for the ages at a time when we needed the distraction.

You can all exhale now.

Arizona’s 96-95, double-overtime, second-round West Regional victory over Gonzaga on Saturday, before a crowd of 14,627 that honored both teams with a standing ovation as they exited the Huntsman Center, left the players doubled over.

Arizona forward Luke Walton literally collapsed underneath the basket at game’s end. “I heard the horn blow and my body just gave out,” he said.


In the theater, players would have been summoned back to the stage for an encore, but Arizona and Gonzaga had already done two.

Gonzaga did not become only the third ninth-seeded team in NCAA tournament history to topple a No. 1 in the second round, but the Bulldogs stared upset in the eye.

After a grueling and exceedingly well-played game that featured only 20 total turnovers in 50 minutes, Gonzaga had the ball in the hands of its best player with a chance to win.

It was all you could ask for.


Blake Stepp won’t soon forget teammate Tony Skinner’s three-point miss, the ball caroming off the rim and teammate Richard Fox batting it to Blake, who pump-faked Jason Gardner with two seconds left and had a clean look at the basket.

Like all great shooters, he used the backboard but cooked the shot a bit too much.

“I had an eight-foot jump shot, but it went too far off the glass,” Stepp would say.

Stepp finished with 25 points and was almost too emotionally spent to talk about it.

“It’s just draining to sit here right now,” he said at the postgame news conference. “Maybe I’ll need a wheelchair to get down the hallway.”

After combining for 191 points in 48 minutes, neither team scored in the last two, a testament to tiredness.

You had to backtrack to the two-minute mark of the second overtime to locate the game-deciding shot, Arizona’s Salim Stoudamire’s running eight-footer to put the Wildcats up by a point. For good. But who knew?

The final 120 seconds -- players with tongues out, grabbing their shorts -- were close to physical agony.


For the winner, Arizona, victory was relief. The Wildcats improved to 27-3 and now advance to next week’s West Regional at the Arrowhead Pond.

For Gonzaga, defeat was not easily accepted.

“There should not have been a loser,” Coach Mark Few said.

The game had too many twists to recount without review of the tape. No team had more than a three-point lead in the final 14 minutes of play. There were 12 lead changes and nine ties.

Gonzaga should have melted after two of its top players, Winston Brooks and Ronny Turiaf, fouled out, but the Bulldogs did not buckle.

The mayhem hit its peak with 12 seconds remaining in regulation, after Gardner missed the second of two free throws and Gonzaga, out of timeouts and down by two, rebounded the ball.

Stepp tried to end the game with a three-pointer, but his shot clanked left off the rim to Skinner, whose last-second shot rolled around the rim, paused for a split second, and rolled in to a rolling thunder of fans rooting for the underdog.

The end-game scenario in the first overtime was reversed. This time, a Fox basket gave Gonzaga an 89-87 lead with a 14 seconds left and Arizona had to answer or check out.


With four seconds left, Walton pushed up a short shot that hit the rim and fell in.

The Zags raced down court and Blake missed a three-pointer at the buzzer.

They could have used oxygen masks for the second overtime.

Had Stoudamire not willed his shot home at the two-minute mark, you wonder how long this game might have gone.

“There were so many tense moments, so many big shots,” Arizona Coach Lute Olson said

It was final box sheet worthy of framing.

Arizona had five players score 15 or more points, led by center Channing Frye and Gardner, who each had 22 points. Rick Anderson finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds.

For Gonzaga, Skinner and Stepp had 25 points. Skinner played all 50 minutes. Five Arizona players logged 40 minutes or more.

Afterward, several men who have chronicled basketball for years thought it was one of the best games ever witnessed

It was hard to argue.

Arizona heaped praise on Gonzaga, forced home after a season that ends at 24-9.

“That was as good a team as I’ve ever played,” Walton said. “That was an incredible game.”

Gardner deemed it “one of the best games of all time.”

Anderson said the game was “hard to explain.”

He said “everyone on the court, you could see it in their eyes, everyone on that court wanted to win that game.”

Few did not want to let go.

“It was awesome to be involved in,” he said of the experience.

Few said he couldn’t believe the season was over. He said his team would leave Salt Lake with tears of sadness, tears of joy and as a coach, “tears of pride.”

It was the kind of performance that would only enhance Few’s candidacy for the vacant job at UCLA.

In the corridor afterward, Few could not even respond to that possibility.

“I’m just numb right now,” he said. “Numb. I have no comment. Right now, my team needs me emotionally more than ever.”