PHOENIX (AP)—Since Lute Olson retired in October, the Arizona Wildcats have been reading their basketball obituary.
Turns out they’re not dead yet.
Nic Wise scored a career-high 21 points, including three free throws in the final 31 seconds, and Arizona upset No. 4 Gonzaga 69-64 on Sunday.
Jordan Hill added 22 points and Chase Budinger had 14 for the Wildcats (7-2), who beat a team ranked in the top four for the first time since Nov. 8, 2001, when they beat No. 2 Maryland.
“A lot of people have been counting us down,” Budinger said. “This kind of gives us hope that Arizona is not a lost team. We’re not a rebuilding-type team.
“The biggest thing is that it kind of puts us on the map,” Budinger said.
Under Olson, some Arizona fans came to believe that Tucson was the center of the college basketball universe. But the balance of power has shifted in recent years—and the once-mighty Wildcats felt like an underdog against the Bulldogs (7-1), who are no longer an up-and-comer in a fringe conference.
Arizona and Gonzaga met for only the third time—and the first since the top-seeded Wildcats held off the Bulldogs in a double-overtime thriller in the NCAA’s second round in 2003.
This time, the teams swapped roles. Arizona came in looking to make a name for itself—or perhaps restore its name.
“We feel that we’ve been underrated,” Wise said. “We were the underdog coming in. We feel like we had nothing to lose in this game.”
Led by interim coach Russ Pennell and inspired by a raucous partisan crowd in U.S. Airways Center, the Wildcats outscored Gonzaga 7-2 over the last 2:25, with Hill and Wise scoring all their points.
Arizona had unraveled late in its one-point losses to UAB in Tucson and at Texas A&M. Those heartbreakers may have paid off Sunday in a game played with the fury of an NCAA tournament matchup.
“I don’t know if losing to UAB and Texas A&M helped us win,” Pennell said. “It would have been nice to win those also, but I definitely think we have learned some things, especially with making sure the right people get shots at the right time.”
On Sunday, Wise and Hill were the right people.
Wise hit 4-of-6 from beyond the arc and Hill was 9-for-14 from the field.
Hill broke a 62-62 tie with two free throws with 1:17 to go, then hit a 4-footer over Josh Heytvelt to put the Wildcats up 66-62 with 36 seconds left.
After Gonzaga’s Matt Bouldin scored on a layup, Wise iced the game at the free throw line, going 3-of-4 down the stretch.
The Zags erased a nine-point deficit early in the second half but couldn’t close the game. Point guard Jeremy Pargo had seven turnovers, three in the final 1:10.
“We knew we were going to get a great game, and certainly we did,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I thought we battled pretty hard, especially there in the second half to give our chance to win. There at the end, we just didn’t quite make plays and Arizona did.”
Austin Daye matched a career high with 22 points and Bouldin added 14 for the Bulldogs.
This was Gonzaga’s second straight game against a Pac-10 opponent. But after blitzing Washington State 74-52 at Pullman on Wednesday night, the Bulldogs struggled to cope with Arizona’s athleticism and pressure defense.
They also had to deal with a pro-Arizona crowd at “neutral” U.S. Airways Center, home of the Phoenix Suns. The arena is only about 90 miles from Arizona’s campus in Tucson.
The game was the second half of a doubleheader. No. 20 Arizona State held off IUPUI 59-58 in overtime in the opener.
Gonzaga hopes this is the first of two trips to Arizona this season. The Bulldogs may return in March, when the NCAA West Regional will be staged in nearby Glendale.
Few set up his schedule to toughen the Bulldogs for the challenges of March. The Zags have also faced Tennessee, Maryland and Oklahoma State in Orlando and Indiana in Indianapolis, and on Saturday they’ll play No. 2 Connecticut in Seattle.
“High-level competition in a neutral-officiated arena in somebody’s backyard,” he said. “That’s why I do it, and it’s always turned out well for us.
“We haven’t played at home in a month,” he said. “And it’s not like we’ve been playing Little Sisters of the Poor either.”