By Jose Solis
With the sports world on hold, Cronkite News will take a daily look at this day in sports history and reflect on some of the biggest moments in Arizona sports.
After opening with an eight-point win over No. 13 South Alabama and a four-point victory over No 12 Charleston, the Wildcats stunned the overall No.1 seed, Kansas, in the Sweet 16 by three before outlasting No. 10 Providence by four in overtime in the Elite Eight.
It set up a highly anticipated meeting with No. 1 North Carolina that took place 23 years ago today.
This run was not what many expected, especially after the Wildcats finished squarely in the middle of the then-Pac-10 Conference and entered the NCAA Tournament with two straight losses. Surely, Arizona’s luck was bound to run out and fans would witness karmic balance after the Wildcats upset the best team in the tournament.
“After beating Kansas, everything was possible, I thought,” Arizona Daily Star columnist Greg Hansen said. “North Carolina (and) Kentucky suddenly didn’t look invincible. And I think Arizona felt that way.”
Inside a boisterous RCA Dome in Indianapolis on March 29th, the Wildcats appeared ready from the start against the No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels. Junior guard Miles Simon caught the ball following tip-off and scored in the game’s first three seconds. However, they soon fell behind by 11, made worse by junior forward Bennett Davison’s three personal fouls in the first half.
“He’s probably the single best defensive player Lute Olson had here in what, 25 years?” Hansen said. “He was just a dedicated defensive guy who could jump out of the gym. So, had they lost him, they really didn’t have a replacement because it was basically a six-man team.
“They had two bigger guys who came off the bench, Eugene Edgerson and Donnell Harris, but they couldn’t replace Bennett Davison, who just played with energy and was a shot-blocker too.”
However, Olson’s starting lineup of Simon, Davison, Mike Bibby, A.J. Bramlett and Michael Dickerson hunkered down against the Vince Carter-led Tar Heels. The Wildcats began forcing UNC into turnovers and started making key blocks. Offensively, the team was able to sink five 3-pointers en route to regaining a 34-31 lead at the half.
“I was on the official table, keeping a scorebook of sorts,” said Tom Duddleston, the former Sports Information Director for the Wildcats. “And a North Carolina guy said at the end of the first half, ‘Nice season you had.’ And of course, you know, we just laughed.”
This wasn’t the first time Olson’s crew had played the Tar Heels that season. It was against North Carolina that Arizona opened up the 1996-97 season, an 83-72 victory in Springfield, Massachusetts. Even more noteworthy was that Simon was academically ineligible and didn’t play.
The second half had typically been where the Wildcats thrived during the tournament, and it proved to be the case once more. The Tar Heels were held scoreless until just past four minutes into the second. However, aside from a 24-point night from Simon, the rest of Arizona struggled to score.
“Arizona only shot 33% from the field, and they didn’t shoot that well from 3-point range either,” Hansen said. “So, neither team shot well, that’s why the score must have been low.”
What the Wildcats lacked in offense, they made up for in rebounding.
“Every loose ball is Arizona’s,” announcer Billy Packer said during the broadcast.
Speed was also an advantage Arizona had, to the point where UNC players were visibly tired with their hands on their hips.
“Coach Olson liked transition basketball,” Duddleston said. “You get a rebound, you run. You get a steal, you run, you know? They score a basket; you just got to push it.”
Later down the stretch, UNC began to close the gap until Mike Bibby came alive. The 1997 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year landed four of his six 3-pointers to push the lead as high as 15 with about 4:36 left.
“Everyone in the squad could feel that we were going to win that game after about six or seven minutes into the second half,” Duddleston said.
Bibby finished with 20 points while the Tar Heels tried and failed to imitate his hot streak, missing three 3-pointers within the final 45 seconds. The Wildcats were championship-bound on the same day they hired Olson as head coach 14 years earlier.
For the Tar Heels, the loss to the Wildcats would end up being legendary coach Dean Smith’s final game, later announcing his retirement shortly before the 1997-98 season.
“I’m sure it was touching for Lute in some (fashion) because they’re both Hall of Fame coaches,” Duddleston said.
“The referees liked him, even Duke fans liked him,” Hansen said. “He was just a class act.”
Arizona would go on to beat a third No. 1 team in Kentucky, winning 84-79 in the 1997 National Championship. In doing so, the 1996-97 Wildcats became the only team in NCAA history to defeat three No. 1 seeds in a single tournament run. Twenty-three years later, that title remains the lone National Championship that the Wildcats have won.
Arizona’s 72-82 loss to #1 Duke in the 2001 championship is still the last time the Wildcats have been to the title game.