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Beating Vikings not without scary 2nd half

Citizen Staff Writer



MIAMI – Arizona’s story continues. It’s not clear whether to classify it as a mystery or a suspense thriller.

Stranger than nonfiction?

“I didn’t know what to believe,” said senior Fendi Onobun, when asked if a spot in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 was possible a few months ago. “You have to be a believer.”

Well, believe it. No. 12-seeded Arizona is the only Pac-10 team of six left standing after beating Cleveland State 71-57 on Sunday at America Airlines Arena.

Arizona, the lowest seed left in the NCAA tourney, will face No. 1 overall seed Louisville at 4:07 p.m. Friday in Indianapolis in the Midwest Regional semifinals.

Louisville held off Siena 79-72 on Sunday to reach the Sweet 16. The Cardinals are coached by Rick Pitino, who lost the NCAA title to Arizona in 1997 when he coached at Kentucky and who some fans think should be UA’s new head coach.

“It’s a wild ride,” UA junior Chase Budinger said. “That’s what happens in the (NCAA) tournament. You have no idea what’s going to happen. On any given day anyone can beat anyone. We’re just glad to be here.”

Budinger and the rest of the Wildcats played with intensity again. Nic Wise led UA for a second straight game with 21 points, followed by Jordan Hill’s 16. Budinger had 15 along with Jamelle Horne.

It will be the Wildcats’ first Sweet 16 since 2005, when they advanced to the Elite Eight and collapsed against Illinois.

“It’s an unbelievable journey,” said UA athletic director Jim Livengood. “You’d hope that every group of kids and coaching staff would be able to enjoy something like this. This is why you play the game for moments like this.”

Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell was almost too tired to talk about it at the post-game podium, with Budinger, Wise and Horne next to him.

“Where I get the great job is watching these three guys interact, and that’s always been the way I’ve felt about coaching,” Pennell said. “So to see them happy, looking forward to playing again next weekend, that’s where I’m getting my joy right now.”

Somehow, Pennell has kept the team together – from Lute Olson’s sudden retirement in late October to the team struggling at 11-8 at one point to UA being the last team picked for the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s been (quite the) journey we’ve been on,” Kyle Fogg said. “I think we can take the journey even farther. I’m just happy to be here with this team. We give it our all every night.”

Arizona improved to 21-13, while Cleveland State finished 26-10 after stunning No. 4 Wake Forest on Friday.

Who would have thought UA would get this far? Many had written off the Wildcats when they were 11-8.

“But we’re (playing) our best basketball of the season right now,” said Fogg. “It’s a good time to be doing that when you’re playing in the Sweet 16.”

UA’s victory did not come without its scary moments. As good as Arizona was in the first half – hitting shots and being aggressive – it was that inconsistent in the second half.

“We knew they were going to make a run,” said Budinger. “That’s the game of basketball. But I thought we did a good job at keeping our composure and not getting too frantic.”

Part of the problem: UA’s Big Three – Budinger, Wise and Hill – were playing with foul trouble and UA couldn’t get after it on the defensive end in the second half. That allowed the Vikings to get to the basket for easy layups.

It didn’t help the Cats that they went cold in the second half. After shooting 57 percent in the first half, UA hit only 6 of 18 shots in the first 12 minutes of the second half.

Still, Cleveland State could only get to within four, 50-46, with 9:42 left. At one point the Vikings missed four consecutive shots, all 3-pointers, as UA extended the lead to 54-46.

But CSU’s Cedric Jackson scored on a three-point play – Hill picked up his fourth foul on the play with 7:05 left – to cut the advantage to 54-49.

That’s when Arizona decided to get the ball into Wise’s hands on nearly every possession. He scored UA’s next five points, including a 3-pointer.

“That’s the kind of player I am,” Wise said. “I want the ball in my hands.”

Two minutes later, Fogg intercepted a Norris Cole pass that resulted in a Horne dunk, making it 63-54 with 3:15 left.

Arizona’s zone hurt Cleveland State, especially in the first half when the Wildcats took a 35-25 lead.

The Vikings attacked, but they were only 8 of 27 from the field in the first half.

“That’s been our nemesis all year, the zone,” Cleveland State coach Gary Waters said.

“You’ve got to hit shots and when you don’t sometimes it’s difficult. It’s hard to beat a team going 3 for 23 from the 3-point line.”

Wise picked up two quick fouls in a matter of 30 seconds, sending him to the bench for the final 3:50 of the first half. UA played the final minutes with Wise, Budinger and Hill on the bench with three fouls.

Despite not being able to be as aggressive in the second half, Arizona thwarted every rally – keeping the Vikings at arm’s length every step of the way.

Now the Wildcats will face Louisville, the Big East regular season and tournament champs.

“We have more work to do,” said Onobun. “We do believe in ourselves.

“It’s not over.”

Steve Rivera’s e-mail:



After Cleveland State cuts the lead to 56-52, Nic Wise hits a 3-pointer and two free throws as UA goes on a 15-5 run in the final 5 minutes.


20 Missed 3-pointers by Cleveland State

in 23 attempts.

4 Steals by Arizona guard Kyle Fogg

24 Free throws made by Arizona in 28 attempts.

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