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 29, 1997, the day Arizona played North Carolina in the Final Four in Indianapolis. 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 29, 1997, Indianapolis
When he arrived at the locker room, elated over fulfilling his lifetime goal of reaching the national title game, Lute Olson heard a chant from his players that made him smile even more.
“Forty more minutes! Forty more minutes! Forty more minutes!”
The Wildcats, in achieving their most significant victory in school history by beating North Carolina 66-58 today in the Final Four, are not satisfied yet.
No tears were shed. Nobody talked about the team finally getting its due. The focus was immediately placed on the championship game against Kentucky in the RCA Dome.
For the first time since the NCAA tournament started in 1939, Arizona will be part of the championship game.
“Guys, we can completely erase the ghosts of the 1988 and 1994 (Final Four) teams if we go out and get it done Monday,” Olson told his team. “Our job is not over.”
Minutes later, he talked to the national media about the experience of finally getting to the championship. The 1988 and 1994 teams failed to make it that extra step, as did his 1980 Iowa team that went to the Final Four.
“I’m thrilled as any coach would be to have this opportunity, but I’m even more thrilled given the group of guys that we because they are fighters,” Olson said. “Even in practice, with shooting drills, they just flat-out don’t want to lose.
“They compete hard in everything.”
For Arizona to reach what was once an unthinkable goal, a national championship, they will have to rely again on the grit of Miles Simon and cool nature of Mike Bibby.
The duo combined for 44 of Arizona’s points, and they made clutch shots late in the second half when North Carolina was close enough to threaten a tenuous lead.
When the Wildcats went on a 20-8 run, to take a 61-46 lead with 4:41 remaining, Bibby and Simon combined for 18 of those points. The game-turning run was reminiscent of when the Wildcats went on a 20-8 stretch against the beleaguered Tar Heels to win the season opener in November.
“We got open looks and we’re not going to pass up open looks,” said Simon, who scored a game-high 24 points. “Basically, the ball was coming into my hands when I was wide open.
“My teammates fortunately are unselfish and they get me the ball at the right spots.”
— Javier Morales
* * * * *
Arizona’s date with destiny has finally arrived. No more Final Four. Now it’s the Final Two.
On with the party. And expect it to be a fast dance.
Kentucky, the defending national champion, is trying to become the first repeat champ since Duke’s 1991-92 seasons; Arizona is trying to break the door down en route to its first title.
The school’s never been in this spot, and neither has its coach, Lute Olson.
At 7:18 p.m. in a couple of days at the sold-out RCA Dome it will be Showtime.
”I’m pleased that we’ve got guys that are as tough as they are and as competitive as they are,” said Olson, whose previous three Final Four trips ended in the semifinals, ”They have given me an opportunity to find out what it’s like to play on Monday.”
And perhaps make history. No NCAA men’s basketball team has ever knocked off three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. If Arizona is good enough to beat No. 1 Kentucky, it would be a first. And Arizona’s first national title.
Arizona goes into the game as a 6 1/2-point underdog.
”We feel we’re not the underdog,” junior Michael Dickerson said. ”We beat the number one team in the country (Kansas). We beat a number one seed in North Carolina. We’ve beaten some great teams in the non-conference. We shouldn’t be an underdog.”
But the Wildcats are. Still, they are on the verge of a possible national title, something UA’s all-time best teams (those in 1988, 1989 and 1994) couldn’t achieve.
”It would be special just to win a national championship,” said Olson, who is in his 24th year as a head coach and 14th year at Arizona. ”But now that you mention that (possibly beating three No. 1 seeds), it would be something special. I hope we can finish the job.”
Arizona will be in for a bumpy, action-packed ride. Olson has already warned fans to get in some neck exercises before the game. UA averages 83.8 points per game; Kentucky averages 83.2.
”For fans who like fast-paced, up-and-down games, it should be good,” Olson said. ”I don’t see either of us holding the ball. It’s going to be an interesting game.”
Kentucky, considered one of the most talented teams in the country despite what coach Rick Pitino says about its youth and injuries, lives by the press and its pressure defense. Kentucky opponents are averaging 20.5 turnovers per game in the tournament.
”I think one of our strengths is the fact that we have three guards who can handle the ball,” Olson said. ”Plus, we have Jason Terry coming off the bench. I feel comfortable with the ability of our big people to catch and find open people, as well. Our biggest challenge is going to be getting ready for that pressure.
”Secondly, how to deal with (Ron) Mercer. And thirdly, how to deal with their three-point shooting ability.”
But don’t expect Arizona, a team playing on spunk, sass and momentum, to flinch. Challenges have propelled the Wildcats to this point.
”I feel good,” Arizona’s leader, Miles Simon, said. ”I’m not scared of them. If we beat the pressure, it’s just easier to get shots for us down at the other end of the court.”
Simon said he’s seen Kentucky several times this season, particularly against South Carolina, which uses a three-guard lineup. South Carolina beat Kentucky twice this season, and Simon said he feels positive about the outcome.
”I think our guards have the same capability as those (South Carolina) guards,” Simon said. ”We can cause them a lot of problems.”
— 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.