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. 30, 1996, when Arizona played against New Mexico at The Pit in Albuquerque. 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. 30, 1996, The Pit, Albuquerque, N.M.
Lute Olson’s sport coat came off, unruly New Mexico fans relentlessly jeered hometown boy A.J. Bramlett, and the Lobos kept answering every Wildcat surge.
It was a test of fortitude, and to a man, the 11th-ranked Wildcats (2-1) said they passed, although they lost to the 19th-ranked Lobos 84-77 tonight in front of a sellout crowd of 18,018 at The Pit.
“I think we all grew up a little tonight,” said freshman Mike Bibby, who had 10 points and 10 assists with only three turnovers. “Things can’t get any more tougher than this.
“I kind of liked it. This place is so loud. My ears even started hurting. But I think we did all right.”
The crowd was especially loud when Olson removed his sport coat less than three minutes into the game after Kenny Thomas shoved Bramlett to the ground, yet no whistle was blown by the WAC referees working the game.
“I think that is the first time I did that, but I had good reason,” said Olson of removing his sport coat. “Did you see the play? A.J. was obviously pushed. I told the guys that they weren’t going to get any calls.”
The crowd grew even louder with boos when Bramlett entered the game, or when his name was announced. Returning to Albuquerque for the first time, Bramlett, of La Cueva High School here, had the best game of his Arizona career. He scored 18 points on 9 of 10 shooting from the field.
“It sort of helps to know I had a good game, but I wanted to leave here with a win,” said Bramlett, who was visited by Thomas, a high school rival in Albuquerque after the game in the Arizona locker room.
“It’s disappointing we lost, but I guess we’ll see what happens next year (when the Lobos make a return visit to Tucson). They didn’t have their way with us in this game, though. For a young team to come into The Pit and play like that, is something to build on.”
— Javier Morales
* * * * *
Arizona’s postgame locker room took some time to open up for the media tonight after the Cats’ basketball game with New Mexico.
But it wasn’t because Lute Olson was fuming and foaming at the mouth in anger over Arizona’s loss to host New Mexico.
Hardly. Olson played teacher to his crew, still a seven-man gang if you don’t include the non-playing bench.
Olson listed everything Arizona needed to improve on:
• Free throws.
• Defensive breakdowns. Primarily help-side defense.
• Late-game decisions.
• And everything in between.
When he concluded, the team clapped loudly and eventually moved on. The locker room wasn’t exactly doom and gloom.
Yes, the Wildcats took a fall. But they didn’t fall apart.
Is it the Pollyanna approach?
As Olson put it, it was ”a dividend-paying” loss, one in which UA will see benefits down the road. There was no pity party in ”The Pit.”
”We know what we have to work on. Coach was pretty positive about it,” said UA freshman Mike Bibby, who had his poorest shooting game to date, hitting just 4 of 16 shots, including 1 for 6 from the three-point line.
It was, by far, a no-lose situation. Locals who have followed New Mexico basketball said it wasn’t so much UNM that beat UA, it was ”The Pit” that did in UA. It was ”a Pit victory,” they said. UA simply found out how difficult it is to win here.
But there were no excuses. UA players knew they had played well enough to win, but didn’t. And in one particular area, UA might have grown up the most – on the inside.
Yes, vital signs of life have been spotted in the frontcourt. How else can you explain UA’s dominance on the rebounding end against a team touted to be much better inside? The disparity? UA 44, UNM 35.
”They are not weak inside,” New Mexico forward Kenny Thomas said. ”Both guys (A.J. Bramlett and Donnell Harris) are good. They’re quick and get to the inside pretty fast. They are very underrated, very underrated.”
The center position has been the source of a continual knock on UA this season. Arizona could be real good if it had a legitimate center, critics say.
”We know people say that every game, but we try not to listen,” said Bramlett, who had a career game in front of his hometown non-fans by scoring 18 points. ”What we’re trying to do is work hard, and I think we’ve been doing that.”
There were no complaints from the coaches after watching the inside players go 17 for 26 from the floor. They saw what was perhaps Arizona’s best game from its post players – the opposite can be said about the perimeter game – so far this season.
— 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.