With an off-balance jumper with 2.8 seconds left, Salim Stoudamire lifted Arizona into the regional final—and a compelling rematch with top-seeded Illinois.
Stoudamire leads the third-seeded Wildcats against the Illini, who can avenge a regional final loss from four years ago as they look to secure a trip to St. Louis for the Final Four.
Trailing by one with time running out, Stoudamire drove left of the lane and sank a shot over two defenders to give Arizona a thrilling 79-78 win over second-seeded Oklahoma State on Thursday night.
The Wildcats survived when John Lucas’ jumper from the corner went off the rim at the buzzer.
“I thrive on those situations. That’s what I live for,” said Stoudamire, who was limited by foul trouble but finished with 19 points. “That’s why I play basketball. Bigtime players step up in bigtime situations, and I see myself as one of those players.”
The win put Lute Olson’s team in the regional final for the second time in three seasons against an opponent the Hall of Fame coach expected to see.
“Any team that comes into this Chicago region knows that if you’re going to get to St. Louis, it’s going to be by way of the University of Illinois. We’re happy to be in a situation where we get a chance to play,” Olson said.
The talented Wildcats were plagued by inconsistency and some discipline problems involving Stoudamire earlier this season, but the star guard has shown focus and maturity in leading Arizona deep into the tournament.
Stoudamire, who led the nation in 3-point shooting during the regular season at 52.5 percent, is averaging 23.6 points in his last five games. The senior guard scored 10 of his 19 points in the final 4:35 on Thursday, including two NBA-range 3-pointers, and handed out seven assists.
With Stoudamire complemented by a frontcourt playing as a focused unit, Arizona is using the size, athleticism and outside shooting that had some observers picking it as a national title contender coming into the season. Forward Hassan Adams had 19 points and 10 rebounds against Oklahoma State, center Channing Frye added 15 and 10, and forward Ivan Radenovic was 5-for-5 from the field for 13 points.
Even all of those weapons, however, might not be enough against an Illinois squad playing like it deserved the No. 1 overall seed. The vaunted backcourt carried the team into the regional semifinal Thursday night, as Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head powered the Illini to a 77-63 victory over upstart No. 12 seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Williams scored 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting and added eight assists. Brown scored 15 of his 21 from 3-point range and shot 7-of-12 overall.
Head had 12 points and six assists, and helped hold Wisconsin-Wilwaukee leading scorer Ed McCants to 4-of-17 shooting and 13 points, more than four below his average.
“It’s wonderful,” Brown said. “Our main goal was to get to the Final Four and win a national championship. Getting to the Elite Eight is a great accomplishment. We’ve got to just keep playing hard.”
Standing in the Illini’s way is the team that dashed their Final Four hopes the last time they reached the regional final.
Arizona and Illinois met three times during the 2000-01 season, with the Wildcats winning twice, including the most important matchup. Led by current NBA players Richard Jefferson, Gilbert Arenas, Loren Woods and Luke Walton, Arizona topped Illinois 87-81 on March 25, 2001 en route to reaching the national title game.
With so many quick and talented perimeter players, Saturday’s game could be a high-scoring one. Injuries, however, could play a part.
Head’s contribution was all the more impressive considering he is battling a stiff and sore right hamstring. He was able to overcome the injury against Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but it could come into play if he’s asked to guard Stoudamire.
“Normally, he would guard Stoudamire,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “We’ll have to see how his leg is, if he can keep up with him.”
Frye, the mobile 6-foot-11 center, had a strong game against the Cowboys despite a knee injury that had him limping noticeably at times.
Arizona leads the series with Illinois 6-5.
Saturday’s winner will face Louisville or West Virginia in a national semifinal next Saturday at St. Louis’ Edward Jones Dome.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Arizona - F Adams (12.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.8 spg), F Radenovic (8.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg), C Frye (15.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.1 bpg), G Stoudamire (18.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg), G Mustafa Shakur (7.9 ppg, 4.5 apg). Illinois - F Roger Powell (11.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg), F James Augustine (10.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg), G Williams (12.4 ppg, 6.6 apg), G Head (15.6 ppg, 3.9 apg, 3.9 rpg), G Brown (13.4 ppg, 4.4 apg).
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Arizona - At-large berth, Pac-10; beat No. 14 Utah State 66-53, first round; beat No. 11 UAB 85-63, second round; beat No. 2 Oklahoma State 79-78, regional semifinals. Illinois - Automatic bid, Big Ten tournament champion; beat No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson 67-55, first round; beat No. 9 Nevada 71-59, second round; beat No. 12 Wisconsin-Milwaukee 77-63, regional semifinal.
ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORD: Arizona - 40-22, 24 years. Illinois - 35-25, 25 years.