EDITOR NOTE: AllSportsTucson.com is running 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 15, 1997, when Arizona played a thrilling second-round game against College of Charleston 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 15, 1997, Memphis, Tenn.
Mike Bibby stood at the free-throw line in the waning seconds of Arizona’s 73-69 victory today not thinking about the implications of the NCAA tournament, the crowd noise or College of Charleston’s last-gasp effort.
He claims he wasn’t nervous about the free throws with 29.8 seconds left and Arizona clinging to a 69-66 lead.
“I had a running bet with (assistant) Coach (Jessie) Evans that I would go perfect from the line in this regional,” said Bibby, who made his first seven shots from the line spanning the games against South Alabama and the College of Charleston.
The bet was lost when Bibby missed his first free throw — “I thought it was going in,” he said — and the pressure mounted. The Cougars, making one last surge in hopes of keeping their magical season alive, had scored five straight points with less than a minute remaining to create the unnerving situation.
The sparse crowd of 11,815 in the ominous Pyramid became deafening somehow when Bibby stepped to the line for the second try.
“After I missed that first one, I knew I was going to make the second one,” Bibby said. “I have confidence in myself. I’m not one of those guys who feel pressure.
“I don’t let that happen to me. If you feel that, you’re not going to succeed.”
The second free throw was a swish, putting Arizona ahead 70-66. But that second straight Sweet 16 appearance against the almighty Kansas Jayhawks was not hand just yet.
Anthony Johnson threw up an awkward, off-balance 3-pointer while leaning over a stationary Miles Simon with 19.6 seconds left to close the lead to 70-69. The Cougars, who won 23 straight games before today, appeared to be living a charmed life.
“I didn’t see anybody else open, and I thought I had a little space,” Johnson said of the shot. “I didn’t think it was going in, but it did.”
Arizona, which has won five of its last seven games, with the two losses nail-biters in the Bay area, managed to get the ball inbounds to Simon. He was fouled by Jermel President with 13.9 seconds left, again creating a pressure situation at the line.
Simon made the first free throw but the second bounced off the rim and the Wildcats led 71-69. The Cougars didn’t call a timeout and instead ran their offense. Johnson penetrated and looked like he was going to shoot but he passed it out to President.
The culprit? Bibby.
“I was very anxious and probably hurried a little bit, but when I got into the lane Bibby stepped up and stopped me,” said Johnson, the Cougars’ playmaker. “I had to kick it out.”
President, the only non-senior in the starting lineup, and the last option on offense, took the 17-foot jumper, and it bounced off the front of the rim. Bibby corralled the rebound and was immediately fouled with 2.3 seconds remaining.
Again, the tension could be felt from here to Tucson. But Bibby, undaunted, nailed both and what was anxiety became euphoria. When the buzzer sounded, Arizona’s bench went immediately to Bibby for a celebratory hug.
“I was looking to be involved at the end,” Bibby said. “I wanted to be there for my teammates and coaches.”
A.J. Bramlett had 15 rebounds against the College of Charleston and Bennett Davison added 11.
Now the Wildcats (21-9) can have their rematch against Kansas, which beat the UA last year in the Sweet Sixteen. The Wildcats play the No. 1-ranked Jayhawks (34-1) in six days in Birmingham, Ala.
— Javier Morales
* * * * *
Arizona is in the Sweet 16 for the second straight year. Yes, it struggled to get there, in part because Michael Dickerson hasn’t been on the mark. But the Wildcats are there.
In two NCAA Tournament games, Dickerson is 11 for 29 from the field, including 1 for 10 from the three-point line. He is averaging 12.5 points, eight below his regular-season average.
”I know I’m not shooting well,” Dickerson said. ”But that’s what separates the good teams from the mediocre teams. In the mediocre teams, if the star player isn’t playing well, they fold and lose. But this team is good.”
What’s been his problem? Are foes making things tough?
”No,” he said. ”I’m just missing the shots. I’m missing ones I should be making.”
• Sick as a . . .
Arizona center Donnell Harris played five minutes today after not playing at all against South Alabama. He was still weakened from flu-like symptoms.
”I’m mad because I can’t be out there,” Harris said. ”But I was dying out there.”
Harris said he’s not sure whether it was the flu, or perhaps food poisoning.
”I’ve only felt this way one time before, and it was food poisoning,” he said. ”I was in the bathroom constantly.”
Harris hopes he’ll be ready for Kansas.
”It’s like this is what you work all season for, to be in the NCAA Tournament, and I’m not there,” he said. ”But I’m happy for everyone because they’re playing so well and we’re playing next weekend.”
• First-round talk
The controversy may never end about Arizona’s early round exits, because everyone except the local media brings it up.
Arizona coach Lute Olson continued to emphasize that his team has done very well in the tournament in the grand scheme of things.
”All you read about Arizona is three first-round exits in the last five years. No one wants to say three in the last 10 years. They want to say three in the last five,” Olson said. ”They don’t want to say in the last four years we’ve been to the Final Four and two Sweet 16s. You won’t read a whole heck a lot about that. But we don’t need anyone apologizing for our program. Our program is a first-class program with great kids.
”The program over the last nine years is the best one in terms of winning percentages in the country. People who have to take shots are very small people. They are frustrated with their own spot in life so that’s why they look for someone to tear down. But what people need to look at is these kids (who had nothing to do with those losses). I’m tired of people looking at what happened five, six, seven years ago.”
Olson said he’d be interested to see what reporters and TV analysts will say next year if Arizona is in the NCAA Tournament.
”Will they put up two Sweet 16s and possibly more and a Final Four?” he said. ”I guarantee you that’s not what will be on the screen.”
Would beating Kansas help?
”That will help,” he said.
— 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.