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 March 13, 1997, when Arizona opened the NCAA tournament against South Alabama in Memphis, Tenn. 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: March 13, 1997, Memphis, Tenn.
Arizona envisioned embarrassment — another first-round collapse in the NCAA tournament — but instead of succumbing to more national scrutiny, the Wildcats had one of their finer moments.
In fact, Arizona’s 17-0 surge late in today’s 65-57 win over South Alabama has to rank as perhaps the best run the Wildcats have ever put together considering the circumstances.
“I was scared to death,” said Jason Terry of the UA trailing 53-43 with 7:31 remaining, “because I was thinking about all those close games we had this year.”
But the Wildcats (20-9) not only pulled out the win, they showed they had the intangibles to perform in a clutch situation, a question mark for the team this year.
“When it got down to seven or eight minutes left, the game was going to be decided on which team would show the most poise,” UA coach Lute Olson said. “We kept our poise and played with the kind of confidence we need down the stretch.”
Now Arizona, which has won at least 20 games in each of the past 10 seasons, can breathe a sigh of relief and prepare for a Southeast Regional second-round game against College of Charleston in two days at The Pyramid.
Things never looked more bleak than when the Jaguars went on a 12-4 surge to take a 10-point lead with 7:31 remaining. They converted on four straight possessions, while Arizona played with the hesitation it has shown so many times in three recent first-round losses.
“Maybe we got a little too complacent … who knows?” said South Alabama forward Jason Hamm. “I think they had that sense of urgency and we sort of stumbled thinking we had it in the bag already.”
After a timeout was called with 7:31 remaining, the Wildcats finally turned up the intensity while South Alabama hit the panic button. The Jaguars would go more than seven minutes without scoring, finding it hard to solve the UA’s full-court pressure defense. Meanwhile, Arizona’s offense started to flow.
Miles Simon, struggling offensively most of the game, helped spark the 17-0 run with a couple of free throws and a baseline jumper with 6:12 left in the game. It was Simon’s first basket.
“The thought going through my mind is that I didn’t want to go home,” Simon said. “I didn’t want to experience the same thing I went through when I was a freshman and we lost to Miami of Ohio.
“That was too painful to take.”
Simon would score nine points in the outburst. Terry, who also struggled with one point before the run, had six of his eight points and added to his five steals in that span.
— Javier Morales
* * * * *
Now this is survival. And if you were waiting to exhale, you can go ahead and do so right now.
Arizona players breathed a sigh of relief today in their 65-57 come-from-behind win over South Alabama in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Southeast Regional in front of a sparse, but shocked crowd at the Pyramid.
”There’s a lot of pressure off us,” said Arizona’s Jason Terry, who again was the spark the Wildcats needed in the win. ”This whole week it was filled with pressure. You have guys on ESPN saying you’re going to lose. But we proved them wrong.”
Anybody ready for the second round in two days against College of Charleston?
With the victory, the demons of yet another possible NCAA first round loss have been exorcised.
”We did it with no seniors, no leadership, whatsoever,” Terry said. ”For us being so young, this is a confidence builder. We kept our composure. That was the key, we kept our composure.”
Arizona would not have won this game a month ago, or a week ago. In fact, Arizona hasn’t won many close games all season. Close calls have not been kind to the Cats this season . . . until today.
”We showed a lot of heart,” said Miles Simon, who helped by scoring 11 points. ”It was never say die. I think we got the confidence we needed and that no matter what happened we’d pull it out.
”And that’s what we need (to get stronger for the next game). In the past we hadn’t had big plays down the stretch but we did it this time.”
Said Arizona assistant Jessie Evans: ”Heck, we didn’t win this game a week ago in the Bay area (referring to UA’s last-second losses in the Bay Area). We grew up here. We definitely grew up.”
Arizona’s prime-time poise payed off. And because of it, UA survived to play another day.
At least one Cinderella has left the building – and Lute Olson stays. Now comes College of Charleston, a 75-66 winner over Maryland today.
”It’s a sense of relief, but we have to put this one behind us because we have to prepare for Charleston,” said Simon, who had a big basket, driving to the lane with a left-handed scoop to make it 58-53, helping Arizona in its critical 17-0 run in the last eight minutes.
As for his role, Simon said he didn’t want Arizona to lose. He had gone through UA’s first round loss two years ago and it wasn’t a good feeling.
”I wasn’t going to let it happen,” Simon said of the possibility of Arizona losing. ”I hadn’t much the whole game because I wasn’t aggressive, although I did take the ball to the hole a couple of times. But I made some things happen.”
— Steve Rivera
FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER!
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.