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December 8, 2007

No. 22 Arizona knocks off Illinois in OT

Box score

CHICAGOJerryd Bayless figures the best way to honor coach Lute Olson is to keep winning without him. To that end, Arizona is succeeding.

Bayless, a freshman point guard, made six free throws in the final 31 seconds of overtime, and the 22nd-ranked Wildcats pulled out a 78-72 victory over Illinois on Saturday, two days after learning their Hall of Fame coach would not return this season.

"Coach Olson is a great coach," Bayless said. "We're going to give him his privacy, and we're going to wish him the best of whatever is going on. We just have to move on without him."

Arizona (6-2) caught a major break at the end of regulation, when an official ignored Nic Wise's apparent signal for a timeout the Wildcats did not have. The game went into overtime, where Bayless and Chase Budinger made the key contributions.

Moments after hitting a free throw, Budinger took a charge on Brian Randle with 2:06 left in the extra period that negated a basket that would have tied it at 67. Then, he put back his own miss, and Bayless drove the lane for a dunk that made it 71-65 with 1:01 left.

The Fighting Illini cut it to 72-69 on Shaun Pruitt's basket with 35 seconds remaining, and they were within 74-72 after Trent Meacham hit a 3-pointer following two free throws by Bayless.

But Bayless made two more with 24 seconds left and two more with nine seconds to go to seal the win. Those were his only free throws of the game.

"For us this is a huge win," interim coach Kevin O'Neill said. "It's a huge win for Lute, and we're proud to be coaching and playing for Coach. And we're going to miss him a lot."

Jordan Hill had 23 points and 14 rebounds for the Wildcats, while Bayless had 20 points.

Pruitt, who sprained an ankle in practice on Sunday, had a career-high 24 points on 10-for-11 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds. Meacham scored 16 points for Illinois (5-3), but poor free throw shooting doomed the Illini, who led 50-43 with 10 minutes left in regulation.

"Free throws have plagued us the last two years," coach Bruce Weber said after watching his team go 10-of-22 from the free throw line. "Especially down the stretch, we didn't hit the free throws. We could have won the game, iced the game, taken control of the game, and we just didn't. We had some breakdowns down the stretch."

The wild win capped an emotional week for the Wildcats, who learned Thursday that Olson would not return this season.

Olson filed for a divorce from his second wife, Christine, that day and announced he was extending a leave of absence that began on Nov. 4. Olson plans to return for the 2008-09 season, but the Wildcats are doing just fine under O'Neill even though he said, "It's very hard to replace greatness."

They jumped back into the poll after upsetting then-No. 9 Texas A&M on Sunday at home, and managed to salvage the win against Illinois.

The Wildcats trailed the whole game until Hill dunked with 55 seconds left in regulation to make it 59-58. Illinois regained the lead on a jumper by Calvin Brock and free throw by Meacham, but Arizona tied it at 61 with seven seconds left when a falling Hill scored on a putback. Then, the Wildcats caught the major break as time expired.

The Illini's Chester Frazier raced up the left sideline and was stripped by Wise, who appeared to signal for a timeout. The official, who was looking right at him, did not blow the whistle.

So instead of a technical foul that would have given Illinois a chance to win it, the game went into overtime.

Wise said he "almost" called time, but "I remembered that we didn't have any timeouts, so that would've been one of those Chris Webber deals. I almost did but at the last minute I pulled back."

O'Neill said he didn't see Wise signal for time, which would have been "grounds for murder."

Weber saw it and protested to no avail.

"I just said he tried to call time out, and (the referee) said, 'How could you hear that from over there?"' Weber said. "I said, 'I didn't have to hear it. I saw it.' When that happens, it's a tough call. I would have felt bad for the kid."

For more coverage of Arizona, visit GoAZCats.com. For more coverage of Illinois, visit Orange&BlueNews.com.



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