PHOENIX (AP)—The last time Arizona and Illinois played, the Fighting Illini staged a late comeback that stunned the Wildcats and denied them a berth in the 2005 Final Four.
The 16th-ranked Wildcats are still haunted by that heartbreaker, but may have eased the pain with their 84-72 victory over Illinois in the Basketball Hall of Fame Challenge on Saturday.
The Wildcats (5-1) felt they made a statement after rallying from a 16-point deficit to win a game played at tournament intensity.
“Illinois is a big-time team,” said game MVP Chase Budinger, who led Arizona with 22 points and eight rebounds. “They always have a great program. It really tested us to see where we were as a team and as a program.”
In the 2005 Chicago Region final, the Wildcats appeared headed for their fifth Final Four. Arizona led by 15 with 4 minutes to play and eight points with 1:15 remaining in regulation. But top-seeded Illinois rallied to force overtime and pulled out a 90-89 victory.
All five Illinois starters from that team are now in the NBA. Arizona also has a different look, although Wildcat starters Mustafa Shakur, Ivan Radenovic and Jawaan McClellan all played significant roles two years ago.
This game was a reversal of that showdown. This time, the Illini jumped ahead 35-19 midway through the first half, then withered in the face of the Wildcats’ explosive offense, which ignited the crowd at the U.S. Airways Center 90 miles from Arizona’s Tucson campus.
“I think everyone got their money’s worth,” said Arizona coach Lute Olson, whose team has won five straight after a season-opening loss at Virginia.
Illinois was without forward Brian Randle and guard Jamar Smith, who are injured. The Fighting Illini also fought through foul trouble on a day they were whistled for 28 fouls—16 more than Arizona.
Illini coach Bruce Weber was so incensed at the officials that he drew a technical foul with 7:50 to go in the game. But the momentum had already shifted.
“We had our chances, even without players because of the injuries and the foul trouble,” Weber said.
Warren Carter scored 24 points and pulled down 10 rebounds, and Shaun Pruitt and Chester Frazier each added 11 points for the Fighting Illini (7-2), who have lost two straight games, both to ranked opponents.
“Each day we’re going to be a work in progress, going to get better every day in practice and every day in games,” said Carter, a senior who posted his third career double-double.
The Illini went on a 17-3 run to take a 22-9 lead with 12:50 to go in the first half. Illinois attacked Arizona where it’s most vulnerable—in the middle. The 6-foot-9 Carter and 6-10 Pruitt combined to hit 10 of 16 shots from the field in the first half.
Arizona was hurt once again by some indifferent defense for long stretches early in the game. Illinois shot 55 percent from the floor in the first half and 50.8 percent for the game.
“They started zone; we shredded that,” Weber said. “They went to man. We shredded that. Then they picked up their intensity.”
Illinois led by as many as 16 before Arizona woke up. Radenovic’s bucket with 6:35 to go launched a 15-6 run that left Arizona trailing 41-36 at intermission.
Carter opened the second half on a personal 6-0 run to give Illinois a 47-36 lead, but went to the bench with his fourth personal foul with 17:04 to go.
Arizona outscored the Illini 39-23 the rest of the way.
Still, Illinois was poised for the upset with 1:14 to go. The Illini trailed 74-70 when guard Roger McBride missed a 3-pointer. Shakur grabbed the rebound and threaded a long outlet pass to Budinger, who hit a layup and took an intentional foul from McBride.
Budinger made both free throws, and Arizona had earned a tense, tough victory.
“Outstanding basketball game, and certainly something that I think will make Illinois better and will make us better as well,” Olson said.
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