Arizona Basketball

Recalling Arizona Wildcats’ most memorable NCAA tournament first-round games


[ezcol_1half id=”” class=”” style=””]


[ezcol_1half_end id=”” class=”” style=””]


[table “” not found /]


The greatest basketball player in the history of Arizona basketball — Sean Elliott — had as many defeats as victories in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Elliott went 2-2 with one of the losses occurring at McKale Center in 1987 against UTEP in overtime.

Arizona followers know as well as any fan base that the first round can be a stumbling block or a springboard to greater things. It is the most important round because a team can either immediately go home or build confidence from surviving to another day.

The first round offers no guarantees even if a team is No. 1 seed, such as Arizona tomorrow morning against No. 16 Weber State. That’s the mindset of Arizona coach Sean Miller, whose never coached a No. 1-seeded team before in his 10-year coaching career.

Miller couldn’t care less that No. 1 seeds are 117-0 against No. 16 seeds dating to 1985 (when the bracket expanded to 64 teams), including Florida’s 67-55 victory over Albany today.

“We’re not going to overlook them, you don’t have to worry about that,” Miller said today at a press conference at San Diego’s Viejas Arena, where Arizona will play Weber State. “If you’re the 1 seed, you don’t want to talk about the fact that that’s never happened, you know? There is nothing good that’s going to come out of that conversation.

“Everybody in our locker room knows the history of the NCAA Tournament whether you as the coach want them to know it or not.”

Miller is part of Arizona’s first-round past in a dubious way. He was on the Miami (Ohio) staff along with ASU’s Herb Sendek in 1995 when the RedHawks upset Arizona 71-62. Two of Miller’s assistants this season — Damon Stoudamire and Joseph Blair — played in that game with the Wildcats.

The Arizona Wildcats are 18-12 in NCAA first-round games dating to 1951 after a 1-5 start through the loss to the Miners in 1987. In the first four years of the Lute Olson era, Arizona came away empty three times in first-round games before breaking through as a No. 1 seed against Cornell in 1988.

The 90-50 convincing victory over the Big Red served notice that Arizona with Elliott, Kerr, and Co., was destined for its first Final Four appearance.

I put forward the question to Arizona followers on Facebook yesterday asking them about their most memorable NCAA tournament first round game in Wildcat history.

Twenty people responded, including former Arizona assistant Phil Johnson. A majority brought up Arizona’s first-round setbacks, which is an indicator that fans place a high standard on the Wildcats heading into the tournament.

Johnson, who was on Olson’s staff when the Wildcats won the title in 1997, was part of the most memorable run in Arizona history. That all started with the first-round comeback victory over South Alabama. Johnson and four other respondents mentioned that game as their most memorable first round game.

Johnson wrote: “Being down 8 with 4 minutes to go against South Alabama and wondering what remote island I was going to have to move to if we lost. Came back and rest is history!!!!!”

The 13th-seeded Jaguars, with the late innovative Bill Musselman as coach, led the No. 4 Wildcats by 10 points with 7:31 remaining. As the Arizona Daily Star beat reporter, I remember sitting next to columnist Greg Hansen and discussing potential travel arrangements to leave early from Memphis to Tucson.

Headline signifying Arizona's 94-75 win over Wisconsin in the first round as underdog despite being a No. 8 seed against a No. 9.

Headline signifying Arizona’s 94-75 win over Wisconsin in the 2006 first round as an underdog despite being a No. 8 seed against a No. 9 seed.

“I was scared to death,” Jason Terry, normally as cool as they come, said after the game.

Miles Simon, the 1997 Final Four MVP, commented as co-host of Sirius/XM’s Inside College Basketball show this week that he remembers South Alabama’s deliberate tempo, one in which the Jaguars tried to maintain possession for most of the shot clock, suddenly changed and opened the door for an Arizona rally.

“I remember their shooting guard coming up the court and all of a sudden taking a shot only seven seconds into their possession,” Simon said. “We got the rebound, got out on the break and scored. That ignited our run.”

Simon, who made his first field goal with 6:12 left in the game, scored nine of his 11 points in Arizona’s knockout 17-0 run that enabled the Wildcats to win 65-57.

“The thought going through my mind was I didn’t want to go home,” Simon was quoted as saying after the game. “I didn’t want to experience the same thing I went through when I was a freshman and we lost to Miami of Ohio. That was too painful to take.”

Another assistant, Jessie Evans, told Hansen of the escape against South Alabama: “My God, the rest of the world would’ve been laughing at us.”

The basketball world did just that in 1992 and 1993 when Arizona lost as a No. 3 and No. 2 seed, East Tennessee State and Santa Clara, respectively.

Ted Maier, an Arizona grad who hails from Santa Clara, Calif., commented on my Facebook question: “#2 seed losing to my hometown #15 seed Santa Clara (who had Steve Nash and a couple other surfer looking dudes)… I was in South Padre Island on Spring Break talking mad crap to all the mid west schools down there on break too… ughhhh… so embarrassing… even more so that ALL MY HOMETOWN FRIENDS GAVE ME SOO MUCH S— FOR US LOSING TO SANTA CLARA (like a grade school team beating a national power).”

Maier added that he was forced to wear a Santa Clara baseball shirt to class the following week at Arizona.

“The jeers and threats I received was not fun (I lost a bet obviously) — so I’ve never taken the first round lightly ever again,” he wrote.

John Vietor, another Arizona grad, commented: “Watching Steve Nash destroy us. I was hoping to wake up and find it was all a bad dream.”

That provoked this response from Tucsonan and Arizona grad Bret Dover: “Steve Nash didn’t destroy us that is a bit of rewritten history that has become popular since he became famous. Fact is Nash was not a huge factor in that game aside from his general contribution on defense and ball handling his only real important points were some free throws at the end of the game. Nash and Santa Clara did not beat us I’m afraid to say, the Cats simply wet the bed and came out flat which was a real problem with some of Lute’s teams. He was a fantastic coach and is a wonderful man but his teams were often soft and unmotivated, not always but it was a problem at times and there may be many and varied reasons for that beyond his fault. But let’s not rewrite history there was a lot of good and so let’s take bad with it too.”

Arizona supporter Bernice Bowers Wallace offered a faithful optimist’s view of Arizona’s first-round games: “Arizona was down by 10 (against South Alabama) and the critics were foaming at the mouth. I could hear the analysts proclaiming another first round defeat. My sister Rebekah and I never gave up and neither did the players. We prayed and the team began to make a comeback. That was the game that showed me their belief in each other and their composure through adversity. I knew they were going to win it all, despite the odds. I am always a fan. Bear Down!!!”

Arizona grad Dick Armstrong offered a sentimental story about the late Bobbi Olson in 1986 before Arizona lost to Auburn at Long Beach, Calif., in the first round: “(Arizona Health Sciences Center administrator) Kent Rollins asked if I would host a dinner for Dr. (Henry) Koffler (Arizona’s president at the time) and his entourage before the game, so I set up a dinner at the Queen Mary. I also asked several of my fraternity brothers and wives, plus all the coaches’ wives. As we were getting ready for dessert, Bobbi Olson came up and said she had leave to get to the arena. I told her we would get there well before the game and she told me that Lute never walked out of the locker room before the game that she was not in her seat behind the bench. She walked out and caught a cab. We lost to Auburn, but that was the beginning of the dynasty.”

A few other respondents, including Arizona supporters Gilberto Borquez, John Yoakum and James Gordon Patterson, discussed Arizona’s first-round history dating to the Fred Snowden years. Did you know the Wildcats defeated Georgetown, coached by John Thompson, in 1976 in Tempe in a first-round game?

Arizona beat the Hoyas 834-76 for the right to advance to the Sweet 16 against UNLV in Los Angeles (the tournament had only 32 teams back then). It was the first meeting of two black head coaches in the NCAA tournament.

Patterson wrote: “1976, it was all so new… Arizona vs. Georgetown.. Freddy the Fox vs. John Thompson. Tempe arena. I was there.”

“Fred Snowden’s first (NCAA) victory was over John Thompson’s Georgetown,” Yoakum wrote. “Al Fleming and Jim Rappis were seniors. Bob Elliott and Herman Harris were juniors. There were only 32 teams then, so the victory — in Tempe — put us in the Sweet 16. In the Sweet 16, we beat Tarkanian’s UNLV — in 3 overtimes — to advance to the West Regional Finals. Cool stuff — 1976.”

Borquez recalled the following season in which Arizona lost to Southern Illinois 81-77 in Omaha. The first-round exit was Snowden’s last NCAA tournament experience after he coached the Wildcats to the Elite Elite in 1976. He was reassigned within the Arizona athletic department five years later.

“Was it the Salukis from Southern Illinois? They upset us under Snowden? That one hurt. Poor Snowden.”

That loss to Southern Illinois was only the fifth NCAA tournament game in Arizona history. Thirty-seven years later, the Wildcats have played a total of 75 games with a 48-27 record, four Final Fours and a national title.

Despite that success, many remember the games that hurt. That shows most fans can become unnerved in that first round game. Arizona’s tip-off with Weber State is approaching. Relax. Enjoy the moment if you can.

Here’s something to calm you other than a No. 1 seed never losing to a No. 16: Miller has yet to lose to a lower-seeded team in the tournament as the head coach and is on a personal five-game winning streak in first-round games dating to his Xavier years.

If that does not help, at least I tried. publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He also writes articles for Bleacher Report and Lindy’s College Sports.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email
To Top