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Tuesday April 3, 2001

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UA falls short in bid for second title

By Keith Carmona

Arizona Daily Wildcat

MINNEAPOLIS - The Arizona basketball team dreamed a little dream at the start of the season.

Those hopes waned midway through the season, though the Wildcats found the strength to fight back toward the end of the year.

But with an 82-72 loss to Duke in the NCAA Final game, the Wildcats' dream of becoming national champions quickly and painfully eluded them.

UA had come so close - overcoming multiple suspensions and even death to reach the final game - but fell just 10 points short of achieving that season-long goal.

"From the beginning of the season, we knew that we should have been here," said sophomore guard Gilbert Arenas. "We fought hard to be here, and even though we lost the game, we are still going to keep our heads up. We made it this far, nobody thought that we'd make it this far, but we just came up one game short."

If there ever was a matchup of destiny, it was last night's title game.

Both Arizona and Duke began the season atop the Associated Press and ESPN polls and finished as the lone teams remaining in the NCAA tournament. But with a near-perfect second half of basketball by the Blue Devils, Duke and not UA would consummate that run at destiny.

"I think fate had something to do with the fact that we were both playing in the title game," said senior forward Gene Edgerson. "There is no doubt that Arizona and Duke are the best teams in basketball this season. We are so evenly matched that I think we'd split a 10-game series 5-5, but tonight was their night and not ours."

Tears flowed from many of the Arizona players' faces in the locker room after the loss, but according to senior center Loren Woods, there wasn't a sense of emptiness among his teammates.

"You don't have as much satisfaction as you want, but we do have some self-dignity," Woods said. "I have so much respect for my teammates. We did a great job this year."

As composed as ever, UA head coach Lute Olson didn't shed tears.

Instead, he beamed at the job his team did this season despite the death of his wife, Bobbi, on Jan. 1 of ovarian cancer and the suspensions of Woods and junior forward Richard Jefferson.

"This team has been so resilient, it's just been unbelievable what they've done throughout the season," Olson said. "They've been receptive, they've been coachable, they've been together. I think the adversity has made them stronger and even closer as a team."

Arizona began the season as the No. 1 team, not shy about claiming that they would indeed be playing for the NCAA title. With the death of Bobbi Olson, their season took on a whole new meaning.

But even though the Wildcats fell short of the title, senior forward Justin Wessel said last night's effort would have made her proud.

"We would have liked to win this whole thing for her, but I know that she's smiling now," Wessel said. "Mrs. O wanted us to get the championship probably even more than we, as a team, wanted it. But with the fact that we resurrected this season after her death, I know she's happy."

When the Wildcats arrived at the Final Four Thursday, they passed by several billboards reading "Four Bobbi," and when they entered into the Metrodome for the game last night, many Arizona fans wore buttons depicting the same message.

"We may be sad, but I know she's happy for us," Edgerson said. "With all the pain that we feel for not getting that title, it's hard to keep our heads up."

But that's exactly what Lute Olson wanted.

The UA players said their coach had just a few words for them after the game, but implored the Wildcats to walk out of the locker room proud of their accomplishments, given the tumultuous season.

"I don't think we let ourselves down or anybody else down," Edgerson said. "We gave an awesome effort, but just fell a few points short of accomplishing the dream that kept us ticking throughout the season."