Luke Walton giddy about Arizona's resurgence
Stepping foot at the Honda Center parking lot, Luke Walton returned to the site that initially sparked unpleasant memories as a senior at Arizona.
So unpleasant, the Lakers forward playfully chastised a reporter for bringing up the top-seeded Wildcats' 78-75 loss in the Elite Eight to second-ranked Kansas in 2003. Still, some of those memories crept back as he and his former Wildcat teammates Ricky Anderson, Miles Simon and Justin Wessel walked toward the arena to watch Arizona face top-seeded Duke Thursday in the West Regional. They were quickly interrupted, however, with plenty of Blue Devil fans greeting them with jeers.
"They were obnoxious," Walton said. "They were just talking trash, not funny trash or joking around. They were just obnoxious. We didn't respond to them. We just kept walking."
It turns out Walton and his former Wildcat teammates didn't need to talk back. Their alma mater did it for them. Arizona's 93-77 upset over top-seeded Duke featured an effort that Walton described as "perfect basketball" and a product of Coach Sean Miller likely saying something instrumental at halftime. The Wildcats outscored the Blue Devils by 22 points over the final 20 minutes. Sophomore forward Derrick Williams scored 25 of his career-high 32 points in the second half. And nearly the entire roster contributed in various ways, ranging from Lamont Jones (16) and Solomon Hill (13). The Wildcats had a 25-9 edge in rebounding and a 24-6 advantage in points in the paint while shooting 58.3% to Duke's 37.5%. The reward: Arizona will face Connecticut Saturday in its first regional final since 2005, the deepest team in the Pacific 10 conference to advance this far in the NCAA tournament since UCLA made the Final Four in 2008.
"Duke is the most talented No. 1 seed," said Walton, who will return to Honda Center today to see the game. "So if they beat them by 20, I don't see why they can't beat the Huskies."
Walton before the Lakers' 112-104 victory Friday against the Clippers sounded happier with the Wildcats' progress than actual concerns if they can stop Kemba Walker and company. Arizona has faced plenty of recent struggles. It's only a season removed from missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 25 years. Lute Olson abruptly retired before the 2008-09 season. And the Wildcats' past two regional losses came in dramatic fashion, including a the Wildcats' 90-89 overtime loss to Illinois in 2005 and their aforementioned loss in 2003. Returning to Honda Center won't bring up same painful memories for Walton as they did only two days ago.
"We're just happy we made it this far," Walton said. "We've been struggling for a while. So we're just enjoying the ride."
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Photo: Lakers forward Luke Walton will attend Arizona's regional final matchup against Connecticut Saturday at Honda Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times