MINNEAPOLIS - There's a perception that basketball teams from the west are “soft,” especially when compared to the “brutish” Big Ten.
But against the bullies from Michigan State, a team that goes to the backboards with the greed of a band of pirates, Arizona held its own.
And against a very tight-fisted Spartan defense, the Wildcats not only held their own but held Michigan State to one of its worst offensive performances of the season.
Arizona had not scored fewer than 65 points in a game this season. Michigan State had held its opponent to fewer than 65 points 23 times this season.
Final score: Arizona 80, Michigan State 61 last night in the semifinals of the NCAA Final Four in the Metrodome. Duke defeated Maryland 95-84 in the second semifinal game.
“It hurts when people constantly talk about how soft the West Coast is,” said Arizona forward Eugene Edgerson. “Inside, we just laugh about it because we're getting the job done. We're winning. We must be doing something good and playing tough enough to win.”
Forward Luke Walton, Arizona's sixth man, said, “People can keep calling us soft if they want. It doesn't bother us. We know we're not soft. We just beat the two teams that are the most physical in the country, so if people still want to call us soft, that's fine with us.”
MSU outrebounded Arizona 40-33 with a 16-8 advantage on the offensive boards. The Cats were one better on the defensive boards. The Spartans had a plus-18.5 rebounding margin in its four previous NCAA Tournament games.
Arizona defeated the Big Ten's other most prominent bully, Illinois, in the Sweet 16 last weekend.
“Everyone's talking about the other team's defenses, Illinois' and Michigan State's,” Walton said. “We fired ourselves up defensively. I think it showed tonight how well our defense is.”
Arizona coach Lute Olson said his team's defense doesn't get much recognition, even though it's been very good all season.
“We've held teams on the year under 39 per cent (shooting from the field),” he added. “We've gone through a stretch of two months where it's been unusual for anyone to shoot over 40 percent against us.
“People want to talk about the offensive ability, but I think we make it as difficult to score on us as anybody.”
BEAT THE BEST: Arizona has the opportunity to defeat three No. 1 seeds on its way to the title if it can beat Duke. The only other team ever to accomplish that was the 1997 Arizona title team which defeated top-seeded Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky.
The Wildcats have defeated the last five No. 1 seeds they have faced in NCAA Tournament play. The list includes Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky (all in 1997), Illinois and Michigan State (in 2001).
GREAT CAREERS: Michigan State coach Tom Izzo wanted to set the record straight regarding his team's peformance.
Seniors Charlie Bell and Andre Hutson appeared in three straight Final Fours, while helping Michigan State win the school's second national title last year. Izzo didn't want yesterday's 80-61 loss to dampen the seniors' overall accomplishments.
“I couldn't say in words how much I apreciate what they're done for our program, for our university, for me personally. We're going to miss them,” Izzo said. “It's not going to be the same without them.”
Bell scored only two points, shooting 1 of 10 from the field. Hutson led the Spartans with 20 points and grabbed five rebounds.
“Even though a lot of these guys didn't have their best games tonight, I wish we could have had a better game for the stage we were on,” Izzo said. “The better team won, yet I don't want to destroy what these guys have accomplished over their careers.”
Bell concludes his career with 1,468 points (11th on the all-time Michigan State list) and 371 assists (seventh in school history). Hutson finished with 1,398 points (14th in school history).
QUICK HANDS: Arizona sophomore guard Gilbert Arenas set a NCAA tournament semifinal record with six steals. The previous record was held by Kentucky's Anthony Epps and Wayne Turner, both against Minnesota in 1997.
Arenas, who left the contest in the second half with a knee injury but was able to return, added 12 points and seven assists.
“There's never been any question in my mind ever since I first saw Gilbert play that he could be as good as he wants to be,” Arizona coach Lute Olson said. “One of the super keys (in the game) for us was Gilbert's ability to pick off passes.”