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 31, 1997, the day Arizona played Kentucky in the NCAA championship game in Indianapolis. The information presented is an article written by beat reporter Steve Rivera of the Tucson Citizen. He and Javier Morales (the beat reporter for The Arizona Daily Star) are now working together for AllSportsTucson.com
You can access previous stories in this series by clicking on this link.
DATELINE: March 31, 1997, Indianapolis
By Steve Rivera
Can you believe? Do you believe?
The Arizona Wildcats did, and now they are college basketball’s best.
They are Top Cats.
They are the NCAA basketball champions, the school’s first, accomplishing what many thought was impossible in a season with no senior starter. But Arizona is champion after its 84-79 overtime win here at the RCA Dome in front of 47,028 stunned fans. Arizona dethroned the champion.
”I don’t know how it feels,” said Arizona coach Lute Olson, amid the postgame euphoria. ”I guess we’ll recognize how it feels later. But this has been an unbelievable ride with an unbelievable group of young people. A lot of people doubted them. They never doubted themselves. From day one the effort was there. They were willing to do the things you need to do to have something like this happen.”
Arizona (25-9), playing as though its life depended on a win, disposed of No. 1 seed Kentucky (35-5), marking the first time in NCAA Tournament history a team had knocked out three No. 1 seeds.
North Carolina, gone.
And tonight, Kentucky, gone.
Three teams with more blue-blooded basketball lineage than any other were disposed of by Arizona’s gritty, gutty Cats.
”After that Kansas game we had the confidence that we could beat anybody,” Arizona’s A.J. Bramlett said. ”It was a no-fear factor from a bunch of guys who just wanted to play basketball.”
Now, Arizona stands alone, shocking the college basketball world with one of the most improbable – but not impossible – six-game runs in NCAA Tournament history, becoming the first No. 4 seed to capture the title. In this tournament alone UA went from first-round question mark to giant-killer.
”This team is no fluke,” Kentucky’s Rick Pitino said. ”Arizona . . . they’re a great basketball team that got better and better.”
Arizona’s six-game joy ride ended at the top. But consider this: Until this time this team never had a six-game winning streak.
”I felt we could win the thing,” said Jason Terry, who had eight points, five assists and, gasp, no turnovers. ”It was a tough bracket but I knew if this team played up to its capability we’d win it.”
Arizona players said they were stunned by game’s end.
”It’s unbelievable right now,” said Miles Simon, the tournament’s MVP after scoring 30 points last night. ”I don’t think it’s really sunk in. I’m still thinking we’re going to have a day off and practice on Wednesday.”
”It feels wonderful, but it really hasn’t hit me,” Terry added. ”Maybe when I get back to Tucson and get to celebrate with the fans I’ll get a sense of the whole thing. It is exciting, but there seems to be something else to it.”
”We’re still in a sense of awe,” Bramlett said. ”But we believed. I believed. We knew we could win. Even though nobody else gave us a shot. We knew we could beat anybody if we played our style of basketball and had fun like we had been doing.”
Arizona did exactly that, handling Kentucky’s famed full-court press with relative ease. It became the first team this season to beat it at its own game. And in the end it was Kentucky’s Cats who were toothless.
UK created only one turnover off its press, but couldn’t convert it into points. Rare was the time when Arizona got rattled, uncharacteristic for a team without seniors.
”I think they came out and tried to fool us at the beginning by not pressing,” Simon said. ”But we knew it was going to come eventually. They pressed the whole game. But the one thing, they weren’t getting turnovers and easy baskets off of it. We continually were able to break it and break it. And they were getting tired. You could see that in the end, they were dragging.”
It may have been Kentucky’s eventual undoing. In fact, Pitino didn’t want to press because he felt Arizona had enough poise and savvy to break it. He was proved right.
”They did a great job handling our pressure,” UK’s Scott Padgett said. ”Before the game they said they could do it. Obviously they really worked on handling our pressure, and they went out there and they kept their cool. They didn’t rush things.”
Mike Bibby did most of the damage, breaking UK’s press and eventually its heart.
”I think they were tired, and you could see them grabbing for their shorts,” Bibby said. ”Any time a team goes at the press that long would be unbelievable.
”I’ve never seen a team do that. We’d be breaking it and they’d still come at us.”
It was Arizona’s free throw shooting (34 of 41) and Kentucky’s three-point shooting (10-30) that proved to be UK’s drowning moment and UA’s crowning moment.
Yet the difference came, Olson said, in who was mentally stronger.
”All along we’ve tried to say that the strongest will survive,” Olson said. ”That the toughest group of guys out there would get it done. With our program we say that no one will play harder, no one will play more together and no one will play with a better understanding than what they do. Their commitment hasn’t been just in games, but every day in practice.”
There was a point when Arizona almost didn’t make it.
Kentucky forced overtime on an Anthony Epps trey with 13 seconds left, just before shots by Simon and Terry missed.
But there was never really a scare for the Arizona Wildcats.
”When they tied it up, I looked at everybody’s eyes and I knew we’d come up with a victory,” Terry said. ”Coach Olson said that the strong would survive.”
Said Bibby, ”We knew we’d have to treat every possession as if it were our last. Sometimes it got shaky but we held through it. We had come this far, we weren’t about to let this one slip away.”
This amazing team didn’t, hitting 10 of 14 free throws in overtime. And now the Wildcats are national champions for the very first time.
”This is such a wonderful feeling,” said Arizona’s Donnell Harris, who played extremely well filling in for Bramlett, who fouled out in overtime. ”This win comes from the heart. Everyone played with heart.”
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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.