By Arlie Rahn
Arizona Daily Wildcat March 31, 1997
One more to go ...
INDIANAPOLIS - When Donnell Harris calmly sank two free throws with 2.7 seconds remaining, he flashed a smile to the Arizona bench that said it all.
The Arizona men's basketball team was going to play in the national championship game for the first time in school history.
"There is no way to describe how great this win feels. It's a dream come true," Harris said. "When I stepped up to the free throw line at the end of the game, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to hit them both."
In a game similar to Arizona's first meeting with North Carolina in mid-November, the Wildcats used solid defense and outside shooting to defeat the Tar Heels, 66-59.
The win gave Arizona its second victory over a number one seed - they shocked No. 1 Kansas last weekend - earning the Wildcats a chance to defeat a third when they face defending national champion Kentucky tonight at 7:18 p.m. Tucson time.
"Well, I'm thrilled, as any coach would be," UA head coach Lute Olson said.
"But I'm even more thrilled given the group of guys that we have, because they're all fighters, they're competitors and they have been all year long.
"It's the first ever, and I told them as long as we've gone this far, we may as well get it done on Monday as well."
The Wilcats were paced by the offensive leadership of junior Miles Simon and the flawless second half shooting of freshman Mike Bibby.
Simon finished with a game-high 24 points, while also adding five rebounds and five assists. Bibby followed up with 20 points on 6 of 11 shooting from behind the arc despite a miserable first half of shooting.
"Miles was just Miles tonight," UA freshman forward Eugene Edgerson said. "We knew Miles going to come out and play big. That's his role, he knows how to lead us."
In the first half, the Wildcats seemed a little lost in terms of defensive matchups. And after 6:32 had transpired, North Carolina's easy dunks and layups had given the Tar Heels an early 17-8 lead.
It was at that point that Simon decided to take over. Following an alley-oop jam, Simon netted back-to-back three-pointers that closed the gap to just five.
"Miles was a big key for us in the first half. He made shots for us when it seemed no one else could make a bucket," Olson said. "He really did a good job of holding us in the game until some of the other guys started hitting shots."
Following a Harris block, sophomore guard Jason Terry did his best imitation of Miles, hitting his only three of the game to pull Arizona within two, 19-17. A scary moment for Terry came after the game, however, when he went to the hospital to be treated for dehydration. The sophomore guard is battling the flu but should be ready for tonight's game
While UNC forward Vince Carter made five of his 16 first half points in the next minute, key outside shots by Simon, Bibby and junior forward Michael Dickerson gave Arizona the momentum heading into the second half, up 34-31.
In the second frame Arizona got tenacious on defense. The Wildcats held North Carolina to just two points in the first five minutes, while forcing three turnovers in that same span.
"The key to our second half start was that we just got back on defense," Simon said. "They were killing us with layups and lobs at the beginning of the game, so we tried to make them set-up in a half-court offense. Our defense was stingy and they didn't get too many open looks."
Over the next 10 minutes, Arizona's defense, coupled with five three-pointers from Simon and Bibby, helped the Wildcats to a 23-10 run. And with 4:36 remaining, Arizona had a comfortable 61-46 lead that proved to be too much for a mentally-drained Tar Heel squad.
"We ran into an Arizona team that played very hard and did an excellent job in their interior defense," UNC head coach Dean Smith said. "They're very quick and they really play well together."
While Arizona's perimeter shooters took care of the scoring, its defense revolved around the play of the frontcourt. The Wildcats finished with a season-high eight blocked shots, with Bramlett leading the way with a career-high of four.
"They did a great job of helping each other over in the post," UNC forward Antawn Jamison said. "I would beat one guy, and then another person comes in the paint. They did a terrific job on the defensive post."
Bramlett and Edgerson led the way with 10 and nine rebounds, respectively. Yet a big chunk of the team's 48 rebounds came from the backcourt.
"A critical part of our success was the rebounding of the perimeter starters, with Dickerson having six, Bibby seven and Simon nine," Olson said. "We know that they have outstanding jumpers, so the battle of the boards was going to be critical."
And even with the win, the Wildcats still feel they have not received their due respect.
"All year we were supposed to be one season away from winning it," junior forward Bennett Davison said. "We were expected to be number 64 after we lost to South Alabama. But now we have a chance to be number one."