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Walton takes over for Cats

Luke Walton comes up big in the closing minutes to help send Arizona to the next round by beating Wyoming 68-60.

By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2002

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- With his team clinging to a lead in the final minutes Saturday, Arizona coach Lute Olson knew sophomore forward Luke Walton better have the ball in his hands.

"Generally speaking, when Luke has it, good things happen for us," he said.

Walton hit back-to-back baskets in a 38-second span to help the third--seeded Wildcats hold off Wyoming 68-60 in a second-round NCAA West Region game.

The No. 7-ranked Wildcats (24-9) advance to the Sweet 16 for the 10th time, but none has been more remarkable or rewarding than this one. Four starters, including three underclassmen, left after last year's loss in the national championship game.

"There's no question the offseason was the most difficult, I think from an anxiety standpoint, because we just flat out had no idea what was going to happen," Olson said. "But the young guys have competed hard, they've gotten better and we've had tremendous leadership from our juniors in terms of developing that pride in wearing the Arizona uniform and competing hard."

They sure had to do that on this day.

The 11th-seeded Cowboys (22-9) exuded confidence after upsetting sixth-seeded and No. 6-ranked Gonzaga Thursday. And they had the bulk of the 15,867 in the Pit, a venue Olson had said he would never come back to after a controversial loss to New Mexico in 1999, solidly in their corner.

Especially after Wyoming cut a 10-point deficit to 58-55 on a short baseline jumper by senior forward Josh Davis with 4:47 left. But then Walton took control, not that that surprised anyone.

"I had made the comment (Friday) that I think Luke Walton was maybe the key to their team because everything they do goes through him," Wyoming coach Steve McClain said.

Walton hit a short jumper and followed with a leaner in the lane to increase the lead to 62-55.

"My shot was feeling kind of good," said Walton, who finished with a game-high 21 points and nine rebounds. "Both times I got in the lane and they stayed back and played the passes. In the game on Thursday, I was still trying to pass those, so the coach told me, 'If they weren't going to come up and attack me, then take the shot.' I just happened to make both."

"He is definitely the best player that I have ever had to guard," Wyoming junior forward Marcus Bailey said. "He had a great game and there was nothing we could do to stop it."

Despite the play of Davis (17 points, 11 rebounds) and Bailey (17 points), Wyoming got no closer than four the rest of the way. The Wildcats sealed it when Walton and Jason Gardner each hit a pair of free throws in the final minute.

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