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Arizona pleases fans, eases hearts with tourney push

by | CBS Sports
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TULSA, Okla. -- Finally, some good news for Tucson.

Their Arizona Wildcats are back in the Sweet 16 and, for a moment, the spotlight is back on basketball -- not tragedy.

It's been more than two months since a gunman killed six people and wounded 12 others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, at a Tucson supermarket.

The city is trying to move forward, and so are the 'Cats.

Arizona held off Texas 70-69 in Sunday's third round of the NCAA tournament at the BOK Center, advancing to face defending national champion Duke in the West Regional semifinal.

"Arizona's back," said Derrick Williams, whose three-point play with 9.6 seconds left wiped out a 69-67 deficit. "Two down, four to go."

Williams battled through a rough shooting night, but led the Wildcats with 17 points. Foul trouble limited the 6-foot-8 forward to 29 minutes, but he was right there at crunch time, just as he was in Friday's tournament opener when he blocked a shot in the final seconds to save a win over Memphis.

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Forward Solomon Hill and guard Jordin Mayes each had 16 for Arizona, which got 28 points from its bench. Mayes hit all four of his 3-pointers and is 8-of-9 in the first two games with five 3-pointers.

"A lot of players stepped up," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "We don't win without their contributions. Period."

Arizona basketball has played a significant role in Tucson's healing.

Its game against Stanford on the day of the shooting was postponed 24 hours. With the city's collective hearts still heavy, the 'Cats came out before a rowdy, packed house at McKale Center and posted a 67-57 win over the Cardinal in front of more than 14,000 fans. They wore black ribbons on their red, white and blue jerseys.

"I think all of us began to wonder what the crowd would be like the next day," Miller said. "You could see where no one would come to the game. It was just the opposite."

Despite a metropolitan population of over a million residents, Tucson has always had a small-town feel built around its university. The Wildcats are the biggest draw in town and with spring training having pulled up stakes this year for Phoenix, UA sports has become a thoroughbred in a one-horse town.

"I'm glad we got these two victories in Tulsa," Williams added. "Hopefully we won't disappoint. Our fans have been great through everything."

When a memorial service was held four days after the shooting, it was hosted by UA at McKale. President Obama, who delivered the keynote speech, used the Wildcats' locker room as a staging area before addressing the crowd.

Even in the games following the win over Stanford, the city seemed to embrace their sporting stars even more, using basketball as an escape.

"People love to come and enjoy themselves, and I think on that Sunday afternoon, it was a matter of taking their mind off an unthinkable tragedy," Miller added.

The school's 14th trip to the Sweet 16 should provide even greater healing.

The fifth-seeded Wildcats now have national attention on their city for a different reason. They're headed to Anaheim, Calif. for a date with college basketball royalty -- Duke. The last time the two teams met was in the 2001 National Championship Game in Minneapolis, won by the Blue Devils.

"Everyone wants to beat Duke when they're younger," said Williams, who is from the Anaheim area. "We're going to have a lot of fans there; it will be like a home game for those of us from Southern California."

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