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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “Past, Present and Future”

    March 6, 1991 — Going to the NCAA Tournament may seem pretty routine as the Wildcats have taken the road to the Final Four the last six years.

    But the University of Arizona has gone to the big show only nine times and has played 18 games.

    In their trips, the Wildcats have had a dream season, disappointing appearances and some in between. Here is a look at the UA’s history in the NCAA Tournament.

     

    THE FIRST TIME

    It was the year of the Wildcat in 1951. The Kentucky Wildcats defeated the Kansas Sate Wildcats 68-58 to win their third national title in four years.

    But it marked the first time the Arizona Wildcats would appear in the NCAA Tournament.

    The tournament had 16 tams playing in two regions — the East and the West.

    The UA, coached by Fred Enke, was 24-6 and represented the Border Conference, facing Kansas State of the Big Seven.

    Before the game, Arizona had already played a postseason tournament and the Wildcats, the fourth seed in the National Invitation Tournament, lost to Dayton 74-68 a week before their showdown with Kansas State.

    It was tough in the early going for UA as Kansas State took a 24-point lead. The UA kept fouling to catch up, but back then, the team had a choice of shooting free throws or having possession.

    Kansas Stat took possession and it almost backfired. The UA mounted a furious comeback before losing, 61-59.

     

    A RUN TO REMEMBER

    Arizona went through a 25-year dry spell where it didn’t go to the NCAA Tournament or win a conference title.

    Coach Fred Snowden and his group would put an end to it by winning the Western Athletic Conference to make it to the show.

    And was a show it put on.

    The Wildcats had little problem defeating Georgetown University 83-76 at Arizona State University’s Activity Center. The Hoyas, coached by John Thompson, were a guard-oriented team.

    The No. 15 Wildcats went on to face Jerry Tarkanian’s high-scoring Nevada-Las Vegas team at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. The Running Rebels, 29-1, were ranked third and averaged 110 points a game.

    Humiliating losses to UNLA were common as it won games by an average of 22 points a game. Hawaii-Hilo knew that first hand, losing to the Rebels 164-111.

    The Wildcats weren’t one of the Rebels’ whipping boys, but still lost in an earlier matchup 98-84 in Las Vegas.

    But the rematch would go differently, as the UA went to overtime and beat UNLV 114-109, thanks to guard play.

    Herman Harris scored a career-high 33 points and Jim Rappis added 22 to help push Arizona to the West Regional Finals.  

    The road to Philadelphia’s Spectrum and the Final Four hits a roadblock — UCLA, the defending national champions.

    Leading the Bruins was first-year coach Gene Bartow, who took over for the Wizard of Westwood, Jon Wooden.

    The Bruin’s front line gave the UA fits as region MVP Richard Washington scored 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Forward Marcus Johnson added 14 points and seven rebounds as UCLA won 82-66. Also plaguing the wildcats was a bruised foot to Rappis, the team’s sharp shooting guard.

    The Bruins lost to Indiana 65-51 in the Final Four. The Hoosiers went on to an undefeated season, beating Michigan 86-68 in the championship game. No other team since Indiana has gone undefeated and won the national championship.

    Harris, who scored 18 points against the Bruins, said, “”I feel good about the season. We have 13 people coming back and I think we can get to the finals next year.””

    That wasn’t to be s the Wildcats lost in first round in 1977 tournament, 81-77 to Southern Illinois.

     

    THREE YEARS OF FRUSTRATION

    They were dark years for the Pacific 10 Conference, as it was criticized by ESPN commentator Dick Vitale. Instead the conference got four teams into the 1985 NCAA Championship, the first year the tournament has 64 teams.

    Questions arose as to whether the Pac-10, 5-14 in the previous five tournaments, deserved to have four teams in the tournament.

    Those questions were answered soon after the tournament began, as Washington, Oregon State and USC each lost in the first round, leaving UA as its lone representative.

    Playing on March 15, the Ides of March, was a bad omen as the Wildcats shot 29 percent from the field and lost to Alabama 50-41.

    For Arizona, the feature looked dim, as it was going to lost its four senior starters — Brock Brunkhorst, Morgan Taylor and All-Pac-10 players Pete Williams and Eddie Smith.

    Instead, 1986 was a sign of hope as the young Wildcats, with two freshman starters, won their first Pac-10 title. But a young team can be little wide-eyed going into the tournament.

    Freshman forward Sean Elliott said he couldn’t help looking past Auburn to the possible matchup with fourth-ranked St. John’s, the West Region’s top seed. The Redmen were led by college Play of Year Walter Berry.

    “”I know we’re going to play Auburn and we need to concentrate on them,”” Elliott said. “”And we are. But on the way over here all me and  (freshman forward Anthony Cook) and Joe (Turner) talked about was St. John’s and Walter Berry. It’s pretty difficult not to think about the possibility.””

    It would haunt the Wildcats as they lost to Auburn, 73-63 at Long Beach, Calif.

    But UA coach Lute Olson wasn’t disappointed, considering all his team accomplished. But he still had to field questions about the Pac-10’s performance as Arizona and Washington, the conference’s representative, again lost in the first round.

    As for Arizona, Olson said, “”No kids have done more or have more potential and no program has made as much progress as ours. We’ll do something about it next year or the year after.””

    It wasn’t the next year.

    The UA and conference champion UCLA were the only representatives in the 1987 tournament, and the Wildcats received criticism for making the tournament — from within the conference.

    After the Bruins won the inaugural Pac-10 Tournament, UCLA forward Reggie Miller and coach Walt Hazzard questioned the UA’s selection in front of the media.

    “”Well, their athletic director I on the selection committee,”” Hazzard told Miller.

    “”Oh, I see,”” Miler said.

    Playing without point guard Steve Kerr the whole year, the Wildcats developed a knack for losing close games.
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    Kerr had severely injured his knee while playing for the United States in the World Championships, where the Americans won their last gold medal in international competition.

    Last-minute blunders plagued the UA against as it blew a 78-73 lead with 50 seconds left and lost 98-91 to the University of Texas-El Paso in overtime at McKale Center. It was the last time the Wildcats have lost at home.

     

    RESTORED PRIDE AND A NEW ERA

    The 1987-88 season was documented by John Feinstein in his second book, A Season Inside. The book chronicled everything from recruiting, the Oct. 15 start of the season, the Final Four and the champions.

    One of the main characters in the book was the UA’s Steve Kerr. He had returned to the Wildcats after redshirting to recover from a severe knee injury suffered while in the World Championships in 1986.

    It was also the best season in Arizona history, at Kerr was part of it.

    The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history, won the Great Alaska Shootout, took the Pac-10 Conference title with at 17-1 record, won the Pac-10 Tournament, had a consensus All-American in Sean Elliott and the top seed in the West Region, and went 35-3 overall.

    The UA had little trouble in the tournament. On the way to Kansas City, Mo., the Wildcats defeated Cornell 90-50, Seaton Hall 84-55 and Iowa 99-79 to meet North Carolina in the West Region final in Seattle.

    Kerr was concerned before the fame against the Tar Heels, telling Feinstein, “”One minute I would wake up and say, ‘Jeez, Dean Smith has lost three straight regional finals, maybe this is his turn.’

    “”I woke up this morning and I started thinking about the game and I actually found myself praying, saying, ‘Please, God, let us win.’ I’ve never done that before in my life. But then I can’t remember ever wanting something so much in my life.””

    In the first half, North Carolina used up a lot of time on the 45-second shot clock and took a 28-26 lead.

    A particular Wildcat who was struggling was center Tom Tolbert. At the intermission, UA coach Lute Olson asked Tolbert, “”Do you want to go to Kansas City?””

    Apparently so, as Tolbert his a spinning over-the-head shot to spark the Wildcats to an easy 70-52 win.

    “”I can’t even remember how many times I fantasized going to the Final Four,”” Kerr said. “”It was just an unreal feeling, looking up at the scoreboard and knowing we had it.””

    What lay ahead for the Wildcats was Oklahoma with its high-powered press and 104-point scoring average.

    During warm-ups Kerr was shooting particularly well, while the rest of the players couldn’t find the hole.

    “”I really thought I was ready to have a good game. I was watching Tom (Tolbert) and Sean (Elliott) and they weren’t making a thing. I remember thinking, ‘I hope these guys aren’t tight.’

    “”As it turned out, I was the one who stunk the joint out.””

    Kerr, who shot .573 from behind the three-point line during the season, had his worst shooting day of the season, going 2 for 13 as Oklahoma won 86-78.

    “”I felt sick,”” Kerr said. “”The only person to blame for that loss is me. I didn’t choke, but I’m a shooter and I had a bad day shooting. I’m convinced that if I had shot well, we would have won. Sean (who scored 31 points) had a great game, everyone else had an average game, and I had a horrible game. It was simple as that.””

    Despite coming away from Kansas City, Mo., without the national title, the Wildcats got a hero’s welcome. An estimated 20,000 fans gathered in Arizona Stadium as the Wildcats were driven into the stadium in 22 new convertibles. Among the crowd was U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe and former Gov. Bruce Babbitt.

     

    THE SHOT HEAR ‘ROUND ARIZONA

    The Wildcats went into the 1989 tournament ranked No. 1 and led by college player of the year Sean Elliott.

    A two-time All American, Elliott was matched up against UNLV sophomore Stacey Augmon, who beat out Elliott for the final spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

    But the matchup that people talked about in the end was UNLV Rebel Anderson Hunt and UA guard Kenny Lofton.

    With under a minute left and the Wildcats up by two, the Rebels played for the last shot. With time running out, Hunt was on the right side and pivoted his foot. Lofton fell down, leaving Hunt open behind the three-point line to hi the game-winning shot.

    After the game, it was alleged that Rebel guard Greg Anthony taunted Coach Lute Olson, yelling, “”(bleep) you. And we’ll beat you next year at our place too.””

    Another Rebel supposed yelled, “”Spit on Arizona. Spit on them.””

    Nothing was proven, but the UNLV-UA rivalry came to an end after the Wildcats lost to the Running Rebels last year because the games were getting out of hand, Olson said.

    The Wildcats returned to another hero’s welcome, but it wasn’t quite the same as the one in 1988.

    Jud Buechler commented that the team went to the parade in the back of a truck instead of new convertibles. 

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