Gonzaga — the little school that could — gave top-seeded Arizona all it could handle Saturday afternoon, before falling 96-95 in double overtime.
The Bulldogs were one put-back basket away from knocking off the No. 1 ranked Wildcats when time mercifully expired. Exhausted players from both sides collapsed on the Huntsman Center floor.
"For anyone to have to go home after that kind of effort is a shame," said Arizona coach Lute Olson, who credited his players' experience and poise down the stretch for the victory.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few agreed, "After such an awesome game, it's a shame someone had to win and lose. We both should be moving on."
The game was fast-paced and furious right from the opening tip, with Arizona moving out to an early 13-7 lead, but the Bulldogs battled back to go ahead briefly at 30-29 with seven minutes left. Arizona then built up a small lead before Gonzaga closed out the half on a 14-4 run to take a 44-41 lead into the locker room.
Guard Jason Gardner for Arizona led the Wildcats with 12 points, including a pair of threes, while Gonzaga's Tony Skinner had 15 and Ronny Turiaf had 12 for the Bulldogs. The key to the Bulldog success, was to frustrate the Wildcats on offensive end and not allow Arizona to go on one of its 10- to 15-point runs.
But the Wildcats — who are 5-2 this season when trailing at halftime — moved ahead in the second half. That's when Gonzaga's Blake Stepp went to work hitting four shots in a row, including a pair of threes, the last one drawing a foul resulting in a four-point play.
Arizona countered with Luke Walton and Rick Anderson pushing the ball into the middle and drawing Gonzaga fouls. With Arizona leading 74-69 following two Walton free throws, Stepp hit a floater in the lane to cut the lead to 71-74, then after Walton and Channing Frye both missed with 3:20 in regulation, Stepp hit a 3-pointer from 25 feet out to tie the game at 74.
The partisan Gonzaga crowd erupted as they sensed an upset in the making.
Following a television timeout, Arizona regained the lead on three foul shots, but Gonzaga's Cory Violette tipped in a Stepp miss with 14.1 seconds left to cut the lead to 77-76. When Gardner could only make one of two free throws, Skinner tipped in a Stepp miss at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
Both teams scored 11 points in the first overtime to make the score 89 apiece. Stepp was forced into taking a contested three-point shot at the buzzer, which missed.
In the second overtime, Arizona got a basket from Frye and two baskets from Gardner, including a three-pointer.
With the Wildcats holding onto a one-point lead at 96-95, Arizona forced a shot-clock violation with 1:26 left, then ran the clock down to just 52 seconds, taking a timeout to set up a play.
The shot missed, and Gonzaga had one more chance with 22 seconds left. The play went to Stepp who launched a shot from about eight feet in the lane that was long. The ball was tipped several times near the cylinder but wouldn't go in as time expired.
"It was the greatest game I've ever played in," Arizona's Anderson said. "Everybody on that floor wanted to win. I could see it in their eyes. We got lucky in the end and came out victorious. It was unbelievable."
As Arizona players celebrated their victory, the Gonzaga squad gathered near the free throw line as a group and applauded their fans.
"Our fans are great," Stepp said. "They've hung with us all year, missing school and missing work to follow us down here."
Arizona, 27-3, now moves onto the Sweet 16 to face Notre Dame, 24-9, in Anaheim next week.