SAN ANTONIO — They've put the distractions behind and lived up to their preseason No. 1 status for months. Now Arizona is headed to the Final Four.
Gilbert Arenas scored 18 of his 21 points in the first half and the Wildcats gave Illinois as much of a pounding as they took, carrying Arizona and coach Lute Olson into the Final Four with an 87-81 victory in the Midwest Regional final Sunday.
The Wildcats, 19-2 since beginning the season 8-5, earned a trip to Minneapolis for a national semifinal game against defending champion Michigan State on Saturday. The Spartans beat Temple 69-62 Sunday to win the South Regional.
Arizona (27-7) upheld the honor of the Pac-10, which saw Stanford and Southern Cal get bumped in regional finals Saturday. The Wildcats are the conference's first team to make the Final Four since 1997, when they won the national title.
Back in October, the Wildcats were talking about not just winning the title, but being among the best teams of all-time.
Then came the trouble: center Loren Woods suspended for six games to start the season; a one-game suspension for Richard Jefferson; the death of Olson's wife, Bobbi, beloved by generations of Wildcat players.
Another problem was selfishness among a starting lineup that featured five candidates for player of the year honors. This game showed how far they've come.
With Illinois (27-8) concentrating on stopping Woods and Michael Wright inside, the Wildcats kept the ball outside. On defense, Arizona shed its "soft" label and played as aggressively inside as any team the Illini saw in the Big Ten.
But Illinois' hard work in the paint paid off and midway through the second half a layup by Robert Archibald, who had a career-high 25 points, put the Illini up 56-54, their biggest lead of the game.
It didn't last long, though. Archibald fouled Luke Walton on the other end and his two free throws tied the game.
After Marcus Griffin missed the front end of a one-and-one, Woods put Arizona ahead for good, 58-56, with his first basket, a meek 2-footer that bounced several times on the rim before falling through.
The Wildcats kept rolling for a 10-0 run that stretched the lead to 64-56. Griffin and Brian Cook fouled out for the Illini in that span, which Jason Gardner capped with an NBA 3-pointer and a pair of free throws.
The Illini got as close as 84-81 in the closing seconds, but Gardner and Woods buried three foul shots to seal Arizona's second victory over Illinois in three games this season.
This was the most physical of the three with the teams combining for 59 fouls and 81 free throws. The Wildcats took the most, hitting 43-of-56. Six Illini players fouled out.
Arenas, who had 13 points on 6-of-23 shooting in two previous games against the Illini, made 7-of-10 in the first half and the Wildcats hit 56 percent of their shots. He missed all three of his second-half shots.
Instead, Woods came through, scoring 16 of his points in the second half. He was 3-of-3 from the field and 12-of-13 from the line. Gardner also had 18.
Illinois' Cory Bradford bounced back from a wretched 1-for-13 game in the regional semifinals to hit 8-of-14 shots including 6-of-11 3-pointers. He scored 25 points.
Illinois was trying to get back to the Final Four for the first time since 1989. The loss also prevented a second straight Big Ten showdown in the national semifinals. Michigan State beat Wisconsin last year.