Editor’s note: AllSportsTucson.com writers Javier Morales (Arizona Daily Star) and Steve Rivera (Tucson Citizen) were the beat reporters of the Arizona basketball team that captured the 1996-97 national championship. The following is their reports of the historic win for Arizona over top-ranked Kansas in the Sweet 16 that year.
DATELINE: March 21, 1997, Birmingham, Ala.
As a group, they jumped over press tables courtside and swarmed to the Arizona crowd the same way they tracked down Raef LaFrentz and Jacque Vaughn most of the night.
The Wildcats, the fourth seed of the Southeast Regional, overcame all obstacles, beating top-ranked Kansas, which entered with the charm of champions, loaded with experience, savvy and the success of a 34-1 season.
But Arizona, with its wealth of athleticism was not going to be stopped, not by the almighty Jayhawks, and especially not by a couple rows of media en route to the UA cheering section after beating Kansas 85-82 at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center.
“It’s the best experience I’ve had on a basketball court,” said Miles Simon, who resembled a Green Bay Packer by going into the crowd and giving high-fives to no one he knew in particular.
“This was all about believing in ourselves because nobody else did,” said Michael Dickerson, referring to oddsmakers having the UA as 10 1/2-point underdogs, the biggest spread in the Sweet 16.
“Nobody gave us a chance, even people in our own state. But I think that made us that much stronger. We shouldn’t be looking for respect. We should have that already.”
There are no doubts now. The UA, which was left for dead after getting swept in the Bay area to end the regular season, is one game from achieving its third Final Four appearance in 10 years. That would certainly mean elite status.
“This is a big win, but I don’t know if I would call it the biggest,” UA coach Lute Olson said. “Any win that gets you to the Final Four has to be considered the biggest. We still have to get that one.”
The Wildcats (22-9) play Providence — a 71-65 winner over Tennessee-Chattanooga in tonight’s other regional semifinal — in two days at the Civic Center.
But until then, the UA will savor its upset over Kansas in what turned out to be a classic sequel to last year’s meeting in the Sweet 16. Similar to that game, Arizona got out to an early lead tonight, but in the agonizing final minutes, the Wildcats succeeded instead of totally breaking down, reversing last year’s 83-80 loss.
Arizona looked like it could celebrate early after Mike Bibby nailed a 3-pointer with 3:26 remaining, giving the UA its biggest lead of 75-62.
It was Bibby’s second critical 3-pointer, the other with 7:01 left after Kansas scored five straight points to cut the lead to 64-62. Bibby’s first 3-pointer started an 11-0 run and the second 3-pointer ended it.
“I was looking to shoot those 3’s,” said Bibby, who made both from the corner. “I practice shooting from there all the time. That’s my favorite spot.”
In that 11-0 run, the UA was able to take advantage of a tentative Vaughn, who picked up his fourth foul with 9:25 remaining. The Jayhawks’ execution sputtered with four turnovers and two missed field goals in that span.
But they caught fire in the last three minutes. Ryan Robertson broke a string of nine straight misses from 3-point range with a basket with 2:33 left. Kansas would convert on eight straight possessions, the last three with two 3-pointers by Billy Thomas and another by Robertson, that cut the lead to 83-82 with 21.1 seconds left.
The game looked to be slipping away as during Kansas’ last run, the UA had trouble getting the ball past midcourt against the pressure. Twice, Paul Pierce made a steal, once on a length-of-the-court pass to Dickerson and another on a pass from Bibby to Dickerson.
“During that time, I kept thinking to myself that we played well enough to win and now it’s in God’s hands,” Jason Terry said.
Bibby, again providing a clutch performance, made two free throws with 18.2 seconds left to put Arizona ahead 85-82. The Wildcats made all six of their free-throw attempts, two by Simon, two by Terry and two by Bibby (who finished with 21 points).
Kansas’ last-gasp effort failed. Thomas missed a 3-pointer. Robertson missed an off-balance 3-point attempt. And LaFrentz, who corralled Robertson’s miss, dribbled the ball beyond the arc and heaved a shot that banged off the rim.
The game was finally over for Arizona.
“We made a great run at the them and they were tough enough to withstand that and make the plays down the stretch,” said Kansas coach Roy Williams, who started four seniors against an Arizona lineup that didn’t include one.
— Javier Morales
One of the first things Lute Olson told his team tonight was to go ahead and celebrate, but also to keep one thing in mind:
”No one remembers the teams that were in the Elite Eight. They remember the ones that go onto the Final Four.”
Arizona is just one victory away from its third trip to the NCAA Final Four men’s basketball championships under Olson. No. 4 seed UA faces No. 10 seed Providence in two days in the Southeast Regional title game.
”We’re not finished,” UA’s Jason Terry said. ”We have a job to do. One of our goals this season was to go to the Final Four. We have to keep that in mind and stay focused.”
Despite its low seeding, Providence, of the Big East Conference, doesn’t appear to be a pushover. After suffering three consecutive losses to end the regular season and getting thumped in the conference tourney by Villanova, the Friars have roared back and beat Marquette, No. 2 seed Duke and Tennessee Chattanooga, 71-65.
”We know we have the talent to beat anybody in the country,” said Providence senior Ruben Garces, who had 12 points and eight rebounds last night. ”We have to go prove it.”
Garces said he’s seen Arizona on television a number of times. He added that he has a number of friends who play for UCLA, and he knows enough about UA to know the game won’t be easy.
”They are really good,” Garces said. ”They knocked off the No. 1 team in the country. That means they are the No. 1 team in the nation now.”
Minutes after his team beat UTC, Friar coach Pete Gillen said his team would have to play better against Arizona than it did tonight if it hopes to advance. Providence was outscored, 41-40, in the second half last night.
”It’s going to be a big challenge,” Gillen said. ”We’re going to try to get better, otherwise Arizona is going to kill us.”
The Friars said their concerns start at the guard position.
”Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and Michael Dickerson are great guards,” God Shammgod said. ”But we have to come focused and play like we can play. We can’t worry about what they do.
”We know they’ve been one of the best teams all year. But I think we’re a great team.”
Now comes the question of who will be the favorite. For the past three games, UA has savored being the team no one likes and/or respects. But it’s likely UA will be the favorite to advance to next week’s Final Four in Indianapolis.
”I still think that we will be underdogs,” Terry said. ”There will still be the critics who think we’re still a year way. We want to prove them wrong again.
”But what we have to do is control our emotions. In two weeks we’ll be able to let people know how we really feel.”
Tonight was just a start.
”We got Kansas,” Terry said. ”But this win doesn’t mean anything if we don’t beat (Providence).”
— 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.