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INDIANAPOLIS — Arizona completed an NCAA tournament run like no other. The UA not only won a title with nine losses, they beat three No. 1 seeds — Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky — along their magical and unexpected trip. Never before had a team beaten three top seeds.
Those traditional powerhouses combined for 11 championships. Arizona won its first in school history with the 84-79 overtime victory over Kentucky.
“Our kids showed their toughness to the very end,” said UA coach Lute Olson, who, at 62, does not have to worry now about retiring without a championship. “What’s most impressive is three No. 1 seeds went down. This is one tough group of Cats.”
That was my lede paragraph published at The Arizona Daily Star, where I served as the Arizona men’s basketball beat reporter and was fortunate to be courtside at the RCA Dome that historical evening 19 years ago today.
The date March 31, 1997, is a bittersweet one with my family. My brothers and I grew up on Arizona athletics since our late father, Hector A. Morales Jr., took us to McKale Center to watch Fred Snowden’s exciting brand of basketball in the early 1970’s. The Wildcats reaching the pinnacle of college basketball was hard to fathom after all of those years of following the program. It still seems surreal.
19 years ago today:
Miles Simon and Mike Bibby led Arizona team in 1997 is still my favorite NCAA tourney team ever. That was such an… https://t.co/A0quwfXgzZ
The experience took a difficult, emotional twist when my father called me the morning after the victory, waking me up at my Indianapolis hotel room. He phoned me to tell me my uncle Oscar Jaramillo passed away from a heart attack before the game took place the evening prior.
My mind and emotions went racing in a thousand different directions. The way I have come to realize it: This day, March 31, is a day of celebration, one that honors Arizona’s championship team and my uncle’s productive life as a husband and father of three.
It took some time, but when I pause now to reflect on this day I only have good thoughts about my experience covering the Wildcats and memories of my uncle.
The Wildcats’ streak embodies more than a six-game joy ride through the tournament, ending with an overtime win over Kentucky at the RCA Dome. Arizona became North Carolina State. The UA knows how Villanova felt 12 years ago.
Olson did not run all over the court like N.C. State’s Jimmy Valvano. His hair was out of place, for once, however, because Bennett Davison fulfilled his promise to run his hands through his coach’s mane if the UA won the championship.
Miles Simon knelt down on the court, hugging the ball, looking like Michael Jordan when he won his first NBA title.
“It was such a war,” he said, slightly shaking his head with a smile. “This is the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever done.”
Simon became an Arizona legend with his Final Four MVP honor. Sitting a few rows up from the court at the RCA Dome were two of Arizona’s biggest names — Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr. Jud Buechler, another former captain like Simon, Elliott and Kerr, was sitting close to Kerr and Elliott.
When Olson saw his team celebrate the win over Kentucky, he looked to the stands and caught a glimpse of his former leaders who really started Arizona’s run to the title.
Those standouts along with players like Pete Williams, Eddie Smith, Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves, Sean Rooks, Matt Muehlebach, Chris Mills, etc., truly shared in the honor of that trophy brought home by Simon, Davison, Mike Bibby, Michael Dickerson, A.J. Bramlett, Jason Terry, and the rest.
“Steve Kerr had called us last week and he said he still felt badly about his shooting night against Oklahoma in the (1988) Final Four,” Olson said. “But he said, ‘You’re going to get it right this time around.'”
Elliott was asked by Olson to talk to his team before the game with Kentucky. The players noted that Elliott talked about reflecting on the hard work they put in all season and making the most of that labor along with all that was learned from Olson and assistants Jim Rosborough, Jessie Evans and Phil Johnson.
“You could not have written a better script,” Olson said. “I think that (speech) relaxed our guys.”
Rosborough, Olson’s longtime right-hand man, drew the assignment to scout Kentucky. That meant he also stood before the Wildcats a few minutes before taking the court for the game.
“When I got up there in front of the guys, I sensed a great electricity, and I was just hoping to not do anything wrong,” Rosborough told me. “I mean, we were playing for a national championship, so things could have gotten a little emotional.
“I wanted to keep it close to how it’s been all year. We’re all human. But I had to be careful, especially with Miles and Michael, because those guys have been around.”
Rosborough cleared his throat and thought of a quick attention-grabber.
“You’re all now in a position of achieving something you’ve been dreaming about since you began playing basketball,” Rosborough said he told them. “It now boils down to the vicinity of 100 possessions and who’s going to play the hardest, who’s going to defend, who’s going to rebound — all the things we started working on the first day of practice.”
Rosborough’s driving point was the first day of practice, Oct. 15, making the Wildcats realize where all the work started. He wanted to stress the game against Kentucky would come down to the fundamentals that were stressed from Day One. When asked about the ability of Bibby and Arizona effectively breaking Rick Pitino’s full-court press — a defense Pitino had to abandon midway through the game — Rosborough said: “Before the game, we asked our guys, ‘When did we start practicing against the press?’ They knew we started working on the press on the first day of practice. There was no reason to get rattled.”
Terry ran from baseline to baseline, waving Arizona’s championship cap in the air. Simon and Dickerson, the cornerstones of the team, embraced. Bibby was mobbed by the UA reserves.
Walk-on Jason Stewart lay on his back at midcourt, eyes closed, praying with a throng of cameramen around him. UA assistant coach Phil Johnson stood alone, letting it all sink in.
“This will go down as one of those special championship teams in college basketball history,” Johnson said. “We beat three great programs along the way. This is something they’ll talk about years from now. … It’s one of the all-time best marches in basketball.”
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.