TUCSON, DEC. 30 -- Lute Olson nearly goes into a convulsion when people bring up the thought that his Arizona team might go undefeated for a long while. But with every victory -- and the string tonight reached 12 straight with a 91-85 success over Duke -- the top-ranked Wildcats look as though they're settling comfortably into their role as No. 1.
And if Arizona ever makes its onto TV outside of the west, the rest of the nation will find out what they already know here in the desert -- that forward Sean Elliott is one of college basketball's best players.
Elliott's 31 points and his teammates' tenacity on defense got Arizona this victory over ninth-ranked and previously undefeated Duke tonight in the title game of the Fiesta Bowl Classic. More importantly, perhaps, the Wildcats gained more confidence from beating yet another strong team, this time a bunch of Blue Devils who will contend for the Atlantic Coast Conference title.
The Wildcats took a 9-1 lead and never trailed. Duke made a game of it, however, early in the second half by cutting a nine-point halftime deficit to 51-49 on Danny Ferry's three-point basket with 16:16 to play.
Duke (6-1) had two chances to tie, but couldn't, then went more than five minutes without scoring a point and more than six without a basket. Arizona (12-0), meanwhile, kept its composure and extended the lead on three-pointers by Elliott and Craig McMillian, for 57-49.
Duke blew eight consecutive possessions. The Blue Devils missed five straight shots and had three turnovers. By the time Ferry hit a hook shot to break Duke's scoring drought from the field, Arizona was holding onto a 62-52 lead with 10 minutes to play.
Ferry, the 6-foot-10 forward from DeMatha High, had 16 of his team-high 25 points in the second half but many of them came in the closing moments when Duke was frantic to close the margin. A string of three-pointers enabled Duke to get within 89-85 in the final 11 seconds. But Elliott and center Tom Tolbert hit their free throws down the stretch for Arizona.
Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he didn't think his team was "ready for that type of competitiveness" and described the game as "combative. We haven't been involved in a game with that type of intensity, and that knocked us back a little. Instead of shooting, we had to get ready to shoot."
That didn't seem to taint Olson's opinion of Duke. "Without any doubt, Duke is far and away the best team we've played to this point," he said, his team having already beaten Michigan, Syracuse and Iowa. "Duke in the final five minutes showed what the are made of. They had to score every time down the court and they did, no matter what we tried defensively."
Arizona's defense -- and Elliott -- dominated the first half.
Arizona missed eight of its first 11 shots, but pounded the boards with vigor. On one early sequence, McMillian scored a layup on Arizona's sixth shot at the basket.
Only one Arizona player was hot, but it was the most important Wildcat, Elliott. His 16 points carried Arizona to a 46-37 halftime lead.
Elliott scored nine points as Arizona gained a 21-11 lead midway through the half when Olson sat him down for a rest.
Not coincidentally, Duke pulled to within 22-20.
Re-enter Elliott. He immediately went inside for a basket that made it 24-20, got fouled on another inside move for two free throws that made it 26-20, and hit a jumper for 30-23.
In the consolation game, eighth-ranked Florida, led by Vernon Maxwell's 22 points, outmuscled, outran and outshot Michigan State, 83-59.