EDITOR NOTE: AllSportsTucson.com is running a feature this basketball season highlighting what happened 25 years ago on that particular day commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Arizona Wildcats’ national championship. The next in the series is what occurred and what was written concerning the developments of Nov. 26, 1996, when Arizona played against Northern Arizona at McKale Center. 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: Nov. 26, 1996, McKale Center
Northern Arizona, second class to Arizona with its talent disparity and woeful past, did not play the patsy tonight.
The Lumberjacks failed to win but they pulled off the upset at McKale Center. Upset as in getting the 11th-ranked Wildcats steamed because for the most part, they crashed what was supposed to be the UA’s party even after trailing by 15 points in the first half.
“We wanted to get out on the (fast) break and have fun, but they ruined all of that,” said Bennett Davison after the UA’s 88-70 victory in front of 14,550 fans, most of whom were restless until the Wildcats started pulling away midway through the second half.
It was UA’s 18th straight victory over NAU.
The Lumberjacks can take solace that nobody yawned, like in 1991, when the UA won 122-81. That came a year after the NAU was embarrassed 100-64 in Flagstaff.
“We were hoping they would beat North Carolina, so they might overlook us,” said NAU guard Andrew Mavis, who scored 22 points and was 6 of 10 from three-point range.
While Arizona was beating the Tar Heels in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic at Springfield, Mass., the Lumberjacks — with seven newcomers, including six freshmen — were losing to Sacramento State at Flagstaff.
But, in a way, a turn-around like this can be expected from a team without any starters from last year. UA coach Lute Olson said the Wildcats would be a fun team to watch. They made things interesting because of their youth.
“The biggest problem we have is we don’t have a guy hollering out there, getting after people,” Olson said. “It’s like a dike with this team. You plug one hole with a finger, trying to make adjustments, and another hole opens up.
“It was like a wet rag by the time the game ended.”
Frustration reached its zenith for the Wildcats with 12:37 remaining and NAU leading 53-52. Gene Edgerson was fouled by NAU’s Casey Frank on a rebound attempt. Frank, who suffered a bloody nose, exhibited his team’s rebellious mood by actually trying to rub some of the blood off on A.J. Bramlett.
He was assessed a technical foul.
Edgerson proceeded to miss two free throws on the foul call, and Jason Terry subsequently bricked the two free throws for the technical. There was a buzz in the crowd. Some fans were even laughing.
“We were right there with 12 minutes to go,” NAU coach Ben Howland said. “If we make our free throws and handle the ball better, things might have been a little different down the stretch.”
Sensing the urgency with 12 minutes remaining, the Wildcats seemingly flipped a switch.
After he missed the technical-foul free throws, Terry immediately drove the lane with a look of determination and scored to ignite an 11-0 run giving the UA a 63-53 lead with 9:46 remaining.
Michael Dickerson finally started to make an impression with five points in the run. NAU cut the lead to 74-66 with 4:50 remaining, but Dickerson went on to score the next 10 points, six on a couple of 3-pointers.
“This was definitely a wakeup call,” said Dickerson, who finished with 31 points to match his total against the Tar Heels on Friday. “This is our house. We can’t be letting teams come back from 15 points down. We have to take control.”
Donnell Harris had one of his best performances in his career with 17 points, 13 rebounds and three steals in 27 minutes before fouling out.
Turns out Arizona needed that kind of performance from Harris to be the difference.
— 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.