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Analysis: Gardner takes center stage one more time

By Maxx Wolfson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday March 10, 2003

Hollywood couldn't have done it any better.

Playing in his last game at McKale, Jason Gardner put on a performance that could garner some Oscar votes, or at least some for Pacific-10 Conference Player of the Year.

He outshined the villain (Oregon PG Luke Ridnour), got the girl in the end (his mom Stephanie) and was again the biggest hero when the rest of his supporting cast needed him the most.

After making only two of six shots in the first half and missing on both of his 3-point attempts, Gardner wasn't ready end his career in McKale Center like that. He was just building the suspense for the climax of the final chapter in his storied home career.

He started the second half with a 3-pointer, forced a jump ball, took a charge, hit another three as he was falling over and then drove the entire length of the court for a coast-to-coast layup. With only 2:15 running off the clock, the Ducks once 3-point lead turned into a five-point deficit, thanks to Gardner.

"In the first half, I was stressed out a lot worrying about things too much," Gardner said. "But in the second half, I came out with an open mind. I let the game come to me."

But he wasn't done there. He was having that kind of afternoon where he could do no wrong. He was playing with a swagger that could invoke fear in any opposing team.

Usually only showing emotion when an opposing player ekes it out of him, Gardner gave the McKale Center fans a rare treat.

After fellow backcourt mate Salim Stoudamire hit a deep 2-point shot to give the Wildcats their biggest lead of the game at 66-56, the Ducks called a timeout.

The four other UA players ran off the court to what seemed like the opportunity to give their point guard the spotlight. Gardner stopped in the middle of the court, looked up at the "student section" behind the south basket and waved his hands up toward the sky, in an attempt to pump up the already raucous crowd.

"He was on fire,'' fellow senior Rick Anderson. "He couldn't have played better. His heart, attitude and desire to win is what's going to get us far."

And the UA fans know that.

For the first time in his four-year career, the McKale crowd chanted "Ja-son Gard-ner" for nearly two minutes during the game. It was a fitting way to end his four-year stint in Tucson.

"Yeah, I heard them," he said. "It was my last time here, so I was hearing everything. It was an emotional night and it's kind of sad there are no more games here, but we've still got a long stretch in front of us."

Gardner, vying for Pacific-10 Conference Player of the Year, would go on to score 21 points making six of nine shots, including four from behind the arc as he led the Wildcats to their season-ending 88-80 victory.

"I don't know how that's going to go," Gardner said. "There are a couple of guys you can give it to in the Pac-10. Hopefully, myself or Luke (Walton) gets it, or someone from my team gets it. It's more of a team effort (here)."

But other Wildcat players feel differently, saying the award should go to Gardner.

"It would be a travesty if he didn't win," Stoudamire said.

Last week, Stephanie Gardner said she had a hard time picking the one moment that stands out most in her son's UA career. She mentioned his game against Stanford during his freshman season, after Richard Jefferson broke his foot and a shot he made from mid-court before halftime, but couldn't pick one.

If asked again, her answer would no doubt be easy.

Saturday's game against Oregon, bar none.

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