EDITOR NOTE: AllSportsTucson.com will run a feature this basketball season highlighting what happened 20 years ago on that particular day commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Arizona Wildcats’ national championship. The next in the series is what occurred and what was written concerning the developments of Nov. 22, 1996, when Arizona played its season opener against North Carolina in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Mass. The information gathered is through articles written by beat reporters Steve Rivera (Tucson Citizen) and Javier Morales (Arizona Daily Star), who now are working together for AllSportsTucson.com
You can access previous stories in this series by clicking on this link.
DATELINE: Nov. 22, 1996, Springfield, Mass.
Going into today’s game with seventh-ranked North Carolina, few people gave the Arizona men’s basketball team a realistic chance of winning.
And why would they? Arizona was without its lone returning starter (Miles Simon), it was putting a very young team on the floor and its ranks were thin. Oddsmakers said the Wildcats were a six-point underdog.
”Heck, I think some players on our own team really didn’t believe we could win,” Arizona sophomore guard Jason Terry said. ”Any time you play a team like North Carolina, it’s tough. But since the score was tied at halftime (29-29), we said, ‘Wow, we could play with these guys.’ ”
No. 19 Arizona did more than that, making a believer of itself and perhaps the rest of the country after beating the Tar Heels, 83-72, at the Civic Center here in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic.
Arizona can thank its backcourt. Freshman Mike Bibby was superb, junior Michael Dickerson had a career night and Terry was playing his best defense. All were ingredients to Arizona’s success.
”I was very impressed with Arizona,” North Carolina coach Dean Smith said. ”They were extremely well-prepared for this game and they were more aggressive than we were.”
Perhaps that’s because UA was the team being overlooked coming in. And UA also has been one of the most successful college teams in the opening month of the season, compiling a 23-5 record in November in coach Lute Olson’s 14 years with UA.
”We like being the underdog,” said Bibby, who marked his Arizona debut with 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting. ”We play harder in that situation. And we didn’t want to get blown out on national TV.”
Instead, for most of the second half, North Carolina was the team having to worry about a blowout. If anything, the Tar Heels may have been a bit humiliated. Today’s loss was the first time in 13 seasons North Carolina has lost a season-opener.
”They did a terrific job on us,” said forward Antwan Jamison. Last season’s Atlantic Coast Conference’s Freshman of the Year, Jamison proved ineffective today.
”They did a good job of keeping us from our offense,” he said. ”They did a tremendous job. They executed better than we did. I don’t want to say we took them easy, but they did a good job.”
Taking Arizona lightly may have been North Carolina’s first mistake. In looking at UA’s past performances, it seems the bigger the challenge, the bigger the game it plays.
Last season, it was the NIT. Two years ago, Michigan at Michigan. Three years ago, the Maui Classic (although it lost to Kentucky in the last second in the title game). All of those games turned the doubters into pouters.
”Nobody thought we’d win, but that’s when we play better,” said Dickerson, who scored a career-high 31 points, 21 from the three-point line. ”We enjoy that pressure. When no one expects you to win, we end up winning (or playing well).”
How or why does that happen? Dickerson said he had only one answer.
”I think Coach Olson is a great coach because he knows how to win,” he said. ”He knows the game very well. He can take a team of midgets and beat a giant team.”
And under the circumstances North Carolina was a giant to Arizona. It had more experience and a more athletic frontcourt. And UA was playing without Simon, who is trying to regain his eligibility after running into some academic problems.
— Steve Rivera
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Mike Bibby’s anticipated showdown today with fellow freshman point guard Ed Cota of North Carolina never materialized the way hype-master Dick Vitale wanted.
Bibby didn’t cooperate, easily outplaying the Tar Heel youngster.
“I told him from the get-go, ‘You’re the point guard. I don’t care if you are 28 or 16,'” Olson said of the 18-year-old Bibby. “I said, ‘Don’t worry about other guys feeling you’re overstepping your bounds. That means tell Michael Dickerson to catch and shoot.’
“Bibby was unbelievable, but I’m not surprised. He’s not your average guy.”
Bibby was surprised by his 22-point performance today.
“I was nervous all of this week because this game was coming too fast,” said Bibby. “I realized this isn’t high school anymore. I’m past the high school stage.
“This is what I’ve always played for. Yeah, sure, I was nervous.”
It didn’t take long for the nerves to settle.
Ten minutes into the game, and North Carolina in the midst of a 12-0 run giving it a 14-7 lead, Bibby yelled, “Relax! Relax!” for all of his teammates to hear. From that point on, it seemed to be Arizona’s game.
— Javier Morales
* * * * *
Simon, who has remained out of the lineup because of academic problems, flew into Hartford, Conn., for today’s game. Throughout the night, ESPN flashed shots of him sitting behind the bench. The players hugged him after the game.
”I had heard (in the morning) that he had talked with his family and they were going to take care of his cost of coming out because he felt that as the captain of this team he needed to be here even though he couldn’t be on the court,” Olson said. ”That was a big sacrifice from his family’s standpoint.”
Simon said he thought his team did ”a fine job” last night. When reporters asked him about his playing status, he said he thought he would be cleared to play yesterday but wasn’t. He said he couldn’t comment further.
— Steve Rivera
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.