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 23, 1997, the day Arizona played Providence in the Elite Eight at Birmingham, Ala. 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 23, 1997, Birmingham, Ala.
The questions still are asked about Arizona’s history in the NCAA Tournament. But it’s Wildcat head basketball coach Lute Olson who might have the last laugh.
Today’s 96-92 overtime victory over Providence in the Southeast Regional finals at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center may have put an end to all the nonsense about Arizona’s past NCAA performances.
“I think people need to get to the present,” Olson said after the victory. “To my understanding, now in the last four years, this is two Final Fours and a Sweet 16. So people need to get off of what these guys have accomplished. You know three Final Fours in the last 10 years . . . that’s not too bad.”
And isn’t it appropriate that the Wildcats, a team playing with preparation and inspiration the past two weekends, are headed to Indianapolis, hoping to show there is room at the top for UA even though everyone said this team was one year away from greatness?
“We didn’t go for that two-year plan,” sophomore and center A.J. Bramlett said. “We wanted it this year. Why wait for opportunity when you have that opportunity now? I’m just happy for my teammates because they put everything on the line. No one gave up, and they gave everything they had to give.”
One thing Arizona almost gave up was the victory. With Providence making a furious comeback and UA clinging to a three-point lead, junior Miles Simon attempted a shot in the lane with 20 seconds left.
His attempt was blocked by Ruben Garces, and with l5.5 seconds left in regulation, Jamel Thomas canned a three-point shot that tied the game at 85.
On the inbounds play, Providence stole the ball. Friar guard God Shammgod missed what would have been the game-winning shot. However, the ball went off a UA player with 3.9 seconds left and Providence kept possession.
A desperation shot by Corey Wright missed, and the game went into overtime. “This is the most tired I’ve been after a game,” Simon said following yesterday’s victory. “Providence caused that. They pressed, they pushed.”
Yesterday’s contest was a brawl game, appearing more like like a boxing match at times. And Arizona played its version of a rope-a-dope, pulling away to substantial leads only to allow Providence to punch back from a 25-17 deficit (to take a 29-25 lead) and later to get back in the game after UA had a 67-55 lead.
“That was pretty wild,” Simon said of the game’s final sequences. “They tried to shoot. Then it was knocked out. On the inbound, I was just hoping someone would grab it and gain control.
“They wanted to get it to Derrick Brown, but they couldn’t get it to him,” Simon said. Of Wright’s shot, he added, “That’s definitely the guy we wanted to shoot it. And thankfully Wright fell short.”
For the second time this season, six players scored in double figures. Simon, who was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, led the way with a career-high-tying 30 points. Freshman Mike Bibby, also named to the all- tournament team, had 17.
The Wildcats are the hottest thing in Tucson since, well, summer. But it wasn’t easy. Arizona (23-9) needed every drop of energy in regulation and in overtime to advance to the Final Four matchup with North Carolina (28-6), a No. 1 seed and winner of the East Regional.
The game will be a rematch of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic, which UA won, 83-72, in November in Springfield, Mass.
North Carolina is a 5 1/2 point favorite in Saturday’s game in Indianapolis.
Providence was able to get back in yesterday’s game in part because of Garces’ offensive rebounding. He had a key offensive tip-in and four offensive rebounds in the Friars’ final late-game run. He was successful because Bramlett had fouled out with 7:31 left inregulation.
“It was tough watching,” said Bramlett, whose cut chin and lip showed just how physical the game was. “And it was tough because it seemed like I was out of the game for three hours. They kept getting offensive rebounds, and more offensive rebounds.”
But Arizona was able to survive.
“I guess that’s just the way we play,” Bibby said. “But we seem to find ways to pull it out.”
Last-second victories and heart-stopping moments are becoming a burden – if not a headache – for this bunch.
“We’ve been through this every game of the year,” said Bennett Davison, who played a terrific game on the defensive end. “We have to play for 40 minutes. And we say it all the time, take care of the ball.”
Arizona outscored Providence 11-7 in overtime.
“We said that there are five minutes left in our season, and it would be a case of who’s strong and who would survive,” Jason Terry said. “We came out and executed and came out on top.”
— Steve Rivera
* * * * *
While walking to the locker room, accepting congratulations from every Arizona fan in sight, Michael Dickerson was heard saying the words that serve as a rally cry for the Wildcats:
Not very many others shared that belief after the UA lost nine regular season games and finished fifth in the Pac-10. There were doubts of the Wildcats beating South Alabama in the first round and then overcoming Cinderella team College of Charleston.
Top-ranked Kansas was expected to send Arizona home in the Sweet 16.
“Everybody thought because of our youth we were a year away,” Jason Terry said.
In many ways, the Wildcats’ 96-92 exasperating overtime win today over Providence reflected what the entire year was like for Arizona.
The Wildcats experienced twists and turns, moments of elation and heartache, and there were different players who emerged as integral components throughout.
After all the trying times, from starting the season without Miles Simon, losing all those Pac-10 games on the road, and today withstanding a furious rally by the Friars, Arizona is headed back to the Final Four.
“These guys have been through so much,” Lute Olson said. “I had confidence in the way they would stand up to the pressure.”
The Wildcats will play North Carolina in the Final Four in six days at Indianapolis.
“Last year, I didn’t even watch the Final Four on TV,” said Bennett Davison, who had 14 points and 12 rebounds against Providence. “I was busy lifting weights and working out to get ready to go to Arizona. Now I’m in the Final Four because of it.”
— Javier Morales
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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.