Arizona Wins Cat Fight in OvertimeBy Anthony Cotton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 1, 1997; Page D1 INDIANAPOLIS, March 31 In one of the most dizzying, fiercely contested NCAA men's basketball tournament finals ever, Arizona completed a surprising run to its first national title tonight, beating defending champion Kentucky, 84-79, in overtime at RCA Dome.
The triumph enabled Arizona to become the first team in NCAA history to beat three No. 1 seeds on its way to the championship. The Wildcats (25-9) beat Kansas, the top seed in the Southeast Region and the No. 1-ranked team in the nation, in the round of 16. They topped North Carolina, the top seed in the East, in a national semifinal Saturday, and then bested Kentucky, the top seed in the West.
Tonight's battle ended with Arizona junior guard Miles Simon who scored 30 points and was voted the Final Four's most outstanding player clutching the game ball and then collapsing underneath a basket. After a few moments he arose. Weeping, with both arms still clinging to the ball, he seemed as unsure of what to do next as the pro-Kentucky crowd of 47,028 cheered.
"I really didn't know what to do," Simon said. "But I'll know how to act next year."
Without a senior in its regular playing rotation, Arizona's opportunity for glory was indeed supposed to be sometime in the future. Meanwhile, Kentucky (35-5), although not the devastating team that won last season's tournament by an average of more than 21 points a game, was favored to become the first back-to-back champions since Duke won in 1991 and '92.
Kentucky based its hopes on its pressing defense, but in Arizona, it was up against an opponent that was able to match its quickness. Often, Arizona's possessions ended with Simon rushing past two or three defenders and then floating through the lane for a feathery jump shot.
"Miles's understanding of the game is beyond anything you can teach," said Arizona Coach Lute Olson, who claimed his first national championship in his fourth trip to the Final Four.
But all of Arizona's players were equally heady. Even when Arizona was slowed to a half-court setup, many times Kentucky was left out of position because of Arizona's scrambling, with players such as 6-foot-9 forward Scott Padgett guarding Simon or 6-1 guard Mike Bibby (at left in photo) somewhere near the top of the key.
Those were matchups that Kentucky rarely won, with Simon or Bibby usually blowing past the bigger players for scores or getting fouled on their way to the basket. Kentucky saw four of its players foul out while chasing the Arizona players, including first-team all-American and NBA-bound sophomore Ron Mercer, who finished with just 13 points. Arizona shot 41 free throws in the game to just 17 for Kentucky, with Simon making 14 of 17 from the line.
Despite Simon's point total, the best player on the court might have been Bibby, an 18-year-old freshman who was supposed to wilt in the crucible that was the biggest game of his life. Instead, Bibby harkened memories of his father Henry, a former point guard who directed UCLA to three national championships. Mike Bibby finished the game with 19 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists.
"I think the coaches were more rattled than Mike Bibby was," said Arizona assistant coach Jessie Evans.
Even so, there was little to choose from between the teams. Neither squad led by more than six points at any time during the game. Because of its fast pace, with both teams pressing, scrambling and fighting on every inch of the court, nothing not even the simplest layup could be taken for granted. That was reflected in the final shooting statistics 39 percent for Arizona, 42 percent for Kentucky. Yet during the frenetic final 10 minutes of regulation, there were stretches where each team played spectacularly, neither squad missing a shot.
Arizona trailed by 68-67 with 2 minutes 9 seconds to play in regulation but scored five straight points to go up 72-68 with 1:01 remaining. But before Arizona could start celebrating, Kentucky sandwiched three-pointers from Mercer and Anthony Epps around a layup by Arizona's Bennett Davison to force overtime.
Arizona didn't score a field goal in the extra five minutes but it continued to aggressively force the issue by charging to the basket and drawing fouls. It made 10 of 14 free throws to control the action and deny Kentucky its seventh national championship.
Even so, Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino had nothing but praise for his team. It entered the NCAA tournament with just nine scholarship players with two of those former walk-ons who earned their grants through loyalty and hard work in practice, not by going against the likes of Bibby and Simon.
"Last year we left the locker room as a dominating presence," Pitino said. "We had three first-round NBA draft picks this year we substituted those players with [freshman] Jamal [Magloire], [reserve center] Nazr [Mohammed] and [former walk-on] Cameron Mills. But it's been a wonderful, wonderful ride I've never had this much fun with a team."
Olson said the same thing about his Wildcats, who provided a perfect finish to the tournament. If there was a rallying cry for this year's NCAAs, it was, "We share the same dreams as they do." From tiny Fairfield of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, one of two schools with a losing record in the 64-team field, to cocky Long Island University, to surprising Tennessee-Chattanooga and the winsome College of Charleston, smaller schools insisted they had just as much right to playing here as tradition-rich Kansas, North Carolina or Kentucky.
Although a member of the prestigious Pacific-10 Conference, Arizona, the No. 4 seed in the Southeast Region, was regarded as little better than its first two opponents South Alabama and the College of Charleston. In fact, with an NCAA history under Olson that included three first-round defeats in the past 10 years, many observers had the Wildcats losing in the first or second round.
But expectations meant little to the Wildcats throughout their tournament run.
"I still have a hard time believing this has really happened," said Olson. "We've had other teams more outstanding teams, more experienced teams but this one, right from the get-go, has been nothing but a pleasure to be around."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company