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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    1988: Wildcats reach NCAA Final Four


    March 28, 1988 — Seattle — The University of Arizona basketball team was called arrogant, cocky and supremist by the local media here.

    All season the Wildcats have been just saying they are confident. If being arrogant means thinking you are the best, maybe Arizona is a little cocky and rightly so, because the Wildcats proved that there is none better in the NCAA Western Region as they defeated the North Carolina Tar Heels 70-52 in the Seattle Kingdome.

    “”This is unbelievable,”” senior guard Steve Kerr said. “”Ever since I was old enough to watch TV, I dreamed about going to the Final Four.””

    Now the dream is certainly true as Arizona heads to Kansas City next weekend for the national Collegiate Athletic Association tournament’s Final Four to play Oklahoma.

    “”I’m not concerned about them right now. I’m just enjoying this,”” Kerr said. “”There is no feeling better.””

    The Wildcats, who struggled through the first half came to prove their critics wrong as they returned at halftime to foil the Tar Heels’ attempt to knock Arizona from its No. 1 goal — the Final Four.

    “”We haven’t been tested,”” junior forward Sean Elliott yelled to a nationally-televised audience after the game. “”See you in the final game.””

    Arizona, for the first time this season, displayed all-out emotion after the buzzer sounded, marking the farthest an Arizona team has ever reached in the NCAA tournament.

    “”Everyone was determined to go out with a win,”” senior guard Craig McMillan said. “”We weren’t going to settle for anything less.””

    And they didn’t, even though their first half performance was no up to Arizona’s normal standards.

    With both teams showing nerves a game of this caliber creates, turnovers and shots falling short filled the first couple minutes.

    However, even during this period, the Wildcats wound up scoring the first five points on a jumper from Elliott, a free throw by senior center Tom Tolbert, who later became an acrobat that circus entertainers would have enjoyed. McMillan finished the brief run with a bank shot off the glass after stealing a pass from North Carolina.

    The Tar Heels got on the board with over three minutes gone and moments later the Tar Heels’ inside force of a sophomore center J.R. Reid picked up his second foul.

    All was going in Arizona’s favor, but an aggressive defense on the part of North Carolina and a passive Arizona team kept the game at an even keel.

    Each team traded baskets with Kerr hitting three-point shots for Arizona and senior guard Jeff Lebo for North Carolina.

    The Wildcats averted a potentially costly intentional foul by Kerr in the final minute of the half when the Wildcats’ senior prevented the Tar Heels from getting an easy lay-in.

    On the violation, the Tar Heels were unable to convert on one free throw and alter missed a field goal try to keep the score respectable at 28-26 in favor of North Carolina.

    “”In the first half we didn’t play the way we wanted to play,”” Elliott said. “”We backed off when we wanted to take it after them.””

    It was only the second time this season the Wildcats had trailed at halftime.

    “”I thought as badly as we played to be down by only two points was pretty good,”” Kerr said. “”We knew we weren’t going to play 40 minutes like we did in the first 20 minutes.””

    Arizona moved its level of play up not just one step, but two or three notches as it left the Tar Heels thinking about what may have been.

    “”I thought maybe we shook them a little in the beginning, but they didn’t stay shook in the second half,”” North Carolina head coach Dean Smith said.

    The tempo of the second half picked up with the increased shooting percentages by both teams.

    Arizona received back-to-back three-pointers by Elliott and McMillan to regain the lead, 32-30, with 17:59 left in the game.

    The Wildcats slowly gained control of the game, despite serious foul troubles. Tolbert and junior forward Anthony Cook had to both be wary of fouls as they ended the game with three and four, respectively. “”It put the pressure on everyone,”” reserve Joe Turner, who played 13 minutes grabbing two boards, but more importantly kept Reid and the other big North Carolina players from getting easy access in the middle.

    “”Coach told me it’s time to get going,”” Turner said. “”I decided this was the time for me to be a man.””

    With Cook on the bench, Turner helped to free open Tolbert, who was simply amazing from the field.

    “”He made some of the toughest shots that I have seen anybody make,”” McMillan said of Tolbert’s exploits.

    The basket that people are still talking about it a back-handed spin shot behind his head after being fouled that fell in the hoop.

    “”That was the key in opening it up for us,”” McMillan said.

    The Wildcats’ senior center scored six points in a four-minute span that helped increase the Wildcats’ advantage to 51-44 with 9:57 to go in the game.

    From there Elliott joined with Tolbert to gradually bring the much-heralded Tar Heels to their knees.

    “”Sean Elliott: we couldn’t control (him) as well as we had hoped and he certainly was a facto,”” Smith said. “”But Tolbert just put on a show.””

    With Arizona up as many as 14 in the final two minutes, North Carolina was forced to try three-pointer after three-pointer.

    “”They weren’t hitting them like they had to,”” said UA head coach Lute Olson with pure delight expressed across his face.

    With the buzzer sounding and one of Arizona’s biggest doubters, CBS’s Brent Musburger looking on, Arizona cut down the net.

    “”There are two more to go,”” Elliott said.

    Two more wind and the Wildcats will be celebrating a national championship. 

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