Sunday, March 22, 2009

MIAMI (AP) - As the final seconds ticked off and Arizona fans chanted “Sweet 16,” a grinning Chase Budinger threw one final pass on the perimeter and joined the applause.

The Wildcats relish their new role as long shots.

Seeded only 12th, the NCAA tournament perennials took an early 14-point lead Sunday and advanced to the Midwest Regional semifinals by beating upstart Cleveland State 71-57.

“Making it to the Sweet 16 feels great,” Budinger said. “We’re showing that we’re a lot better than what people thought of us.”

The Wildcats are appearing in the tournament for the 25th year in a row, two shy of the record. But they’ve never been seeded so low, and they drew criticism as undeserving of a berth.

Now they’re bound for the round of 16 for the 12th time since 1988, and they’ll be the lowest-seeded team still playing.

“When you look at the NCAA tournament, a lot of times the teams that get hot at the right time are teams that had to struggle to get in,” interim coach Russ Pennell said. “What’s happening now doesn’t surprise me with this team. We’ve seen it before at points in the season.”

Nic Wise scored 21 points to lead four double-figure scorers for the Wildcats (21-13), who earned a trip to Indianapolis. On Friday, they’ll meet the tournament’s top overall seed, Louisville, which beat Siena 79-72.

Bracket-busting Cleveland State (26-11), at No. 13 the lowest-seeded team to reach the second round, was unable to duplicate its improbable run to the regional final in 1986. That’s the only other time the Vikings made the tournament.

“Our year is coming to an end as a family,” senior guard Cedric Jackson said. “But we had a great year. We’re just proud that we could make it this far.”

The Vikings struggled to solve Arizona’s zone defense, starting 0-for-11 and 1-for-18 from 3-point range. They finished 3-for-23, and shot 37 percent overall.

“Arizona’s zone was really tough,” Cleveland State coach Gary Waters said. “That has been our nemesis all year _ the zone.”

The Wildcats also hurt Cleveland State with their transition game, totaling 15 fast-break points, often to swing momentum.

The Vikings trailed 41-29, then cut the deficit to 48-44 midway through the second half but got no closer. From 56-52, Wise scored five consecutive points to spark a 13-2 run as Wildcats fans filled the half-empty arena with one roar after another.

Arizona put the game away with free throws and finished 24-for-28 from the line. Cleveland State totaled only five points in the last 6:26.

Jordan Hill had 16 points and nine rebounds for the Wildcats despite being limited to 32 minutes because of foul trouble. Budinger and Jamelle Horne had 15 points apiece, and Wise had eight assists while shooting 10-for-10 from the line.

The victory is the latest chapter in a roller-coaster season for Arizona following Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson’s sudden retirement last fall. The Wildcats barely made the tournament after losing five of their final six regular-season games.

After a loss in their opening game in the Pac-10 tournament to rival Arizona State, Wise told his teammates he wanted to play in the NCAA tournament title game.

“That’s the way we’re playing,” Wise said. “We have the talent to do it. We’re proving it now, and we’re peaking at the right time.”

Pennell, Arizona State’s radio analyst before replacing Olson, said he’ll need some time to absorb his players’ accomplishment.

“To see them happy, looking forward to playing again next weekend, that’s where I’m getting my joy,” he said.

Norris Cole scored 17 points for Cleveland State. Jackson was sidelined by a scratched eye in the first half but missed only three minutes and finished with 15 points.

The guards penetrated to create open looks for forwards J’Nathan Bullock and George Tandy, but they shot a combined 4-for-17.

“I couldn’t find my shot,” Bullock said. “Some nights that happens. It’s tough when it happens in the second round of the NCAA tournament. When you play a zone, you have to make your open shots. We weren’t able to do that.”

The Vikings were hurt early by turnovers, several the result of sloppy mistakes far from the basket. Jeremy Montgomery dribbled the ball off his foot, and Tandy stepped into the court before throwing an inbounds pass.

The Wildcats ran early, scored on their first three possessions for a 7-0 lead and increased the margin to 28-14 as Cleveland missed 16 of its first 21 shots.

Even the 6-foot-10 Hill became involved in the running game, getting out front on one fast break and converting a three-point play. The 6-7 Budinger showed his athleticism by coming from the backside twice to take passes near the rim for layups.

“I give all the credit to Arizona,” Vikings forward Chris Moore said. “A lot of people underestimate how tough they are.”

(This version CORRECTS Arizona 71, Cleveland State 57. corrects to Arizona State in 20th graf.)

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