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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Biggest game in UA history: Arizona basketball beats No. 1 Kansas in 1997


    Arizona beat the No. 1 seeded Kansas Jayhawks who were the heavy favorite to win the national title in 1997.

    Editors note: The 1997 National Championship team will be in attendance at the Red-Blue Game in McKale Center on Friday for the 20th anniversary celebration of Arizona basketball’s lone title. We will be profiling the team’s players and the prolific title run leading up to Friday’s celebration. 

    The Arizona Wildcats won the men’s basketball national championship in 1997, and on their path to the only title in school history, they defeated three No. 1 seeds. Arizona became the only team to do so in the history of the NCAA Tournament, a record that still stands today. 

    The first of these three No. 1 seeds were the Kansas Jayhawks, the title favorite and the Big 12 Conference champion who boasted a 34-1 record along with several NBA prospects, most notably a 6-foot-7 sophomore named Paul Pierce.

    The Jayhawks cruised through the regular season and the first two rounds of the tournament, beating Jackson State and Purdue, both by 14 points. Kansas was led by All-American Jacque Vaughn, largely regarded as the staunchest of defenders at the point guard position that season. 

    Pierce was a sophomore stud and the front court of Scot Pollard and Raef LaFrentz was perhaps the best in the country at their positions. Kansas had it all, outside shooting, inside scoring and a defense that terrorized the Big 12.

    Arizona, on the other hand, struggled throughout most of the regular season, finishing fourth in the Pac-10 Conference with 19-9 overall record and going 11-7 in conference play. Arizona also didn’t have the easiest of times through the first two rounds, fighting off a pesky South Alabama team and nearly getting knocked off by the No.12-seed College of Charleston. In both opening round games, the Wildcats faced double-digit deficits.

    Going into the Kansas game, not many people gave the Wildcats a chance, more so due to the recent play of Arizona than because of its talent. Freshman guard Mike Bibby and sophomore guard Jason Terry were still relatively unknown and unpredictable, junior guard Miles Simon gave you the basics and junior forward Michael Dickerson, Arizona’s leading scorer all season, was fading at a time he was needed most.

    RELATED: Jason Terry learned from freshman year to help lead Wildcats to 1997 national championship

    In addition to the players, this matchup was between two hall of fame coaches in Kansas’ Roy Williams and Arizona’s Lute Olson. Williams was 247-58 in his ninth season at Kansas, while Olson was 510-256 in his 14th season at Arizona.

    The Wildcats jumped out to an early lead and controlled most of the first half, taking a 38-36 lead into halftime. The Jayhawks weathered the storm early on but were unable to gain full control of the game, something Olson alluded to in his halftime interview with CBS when Craig James asked him whether he was concerned if his team was tired after jumping out to an early lead.

    “No, absolutely not, I think they look more tired than we did,” Olson said. “We have to stop them in transition, because they are having a heck of a time scoring against us in our half-court defense.”

    Olson was right. His three-guard lineup with Dickerson, Simon and Bibby as well as a defensive pest in Terry off the bench were causing chaos for the Jayhawks. Forwards A.J. Bramlett and Bennett Davison were able to subdue the powerful Kansas front court of LaFrentz and Pollard.

    Kansas had thrived in three point shooting in transition all season but the Wildcats had slowed it down and taken advantage of the Jayhawks’ lack of transition defense themselves, scoring off turnovers time and time again.

    Kansas went to a 1-3-1 zone In an effort to neutralize Arizona, but it didn’t matter. The three-headed monster of Bibby, Simon and Dickerson would see to that. Bibby found spots on the perimeter to make the Jayhawks pay, putting the Wildcats up by five after hitting a 3-pointer with just under seven minutes in the game.

     RELATED: The purest point guard ever at Arizona, Bibby was silent leader of 1997 national championship run

    Simon followed it with his 3-pointer to put the Wildcats up by eight and it looked as if the Wildcats would start to pull away. Dickerson hit a pull-up baseline jumper to give Arizona its biggest lead of the game at 10, and Bibby hit yet another 3-pointer on an out-of-bounds play to give the Wildcats a 13-point lead.

    The Jayhawks weren’t a 34-1 team for nothing, however, and battled back. LaFrentz blocked consecutive shots by Arizona forward Bramlett in a key defensive sequence to energize his team. Pierce also started to assert himself and before you knew it, Kansas was down just six with under two minutes to go. Pierce ended with a game-high 27 points.

    Applying a full-court press, the Jayhawks ratcheted up the pressure and forced the Wildcats into several turnovers, including one that ultimately led to a corner 3-pointer by Kansas’ best long-range shooter Billy Thomas to cut the deficit to three. Thomas did everything in his power to advance Kansas, hitting another three just seconds after Bibby scored on a floater to cut the lead to two with 36 seconds left in the game.

    Terry headed to the free-throw line to shoot two for the Wildcats with 30 seconds left. Arizona was up by four after he sunk both shots.

    Ryan Robertson for KU came off a screen and buried a 3-pointer with 21 seconds left, cutting the Arizona lead to one.

    Bibby was fouled with 18 second remaining and headed to the stripe to shoot two. Bibby, being cool, calm and collected, knocked down both shots to put Arizona up by three.

    KU’s Vaughn, the All-American ran the court and found Thomas, yet again, coming off a screen wide open. But Thomas missed with a chance to tie the game.

    Bramlett, seemingly in great position to get the rebound off the miss, inexplicably let it ricochet off his hands directly to Vaughn, who threw it to Robertson who then heaved a half-hearted attempt that grazed the rim and right into the hand of LaFrentz. Kansas’ last hope dribbled to the corner for a three with two seconds left. When it came down, it thudded right into the waiting arms of Terry as time expired. 

    Kansas had lost, and Arizona had pulled off a monumental upset over the No. 1-seeded Jayhawks.

    That game went down as one of the greatest games in UA basketball history, if not the greatest, because of what it ultimately lead to—a national championship. The Wildcats had been on the other side of the upset story far too often before only then being reveled in the glory of that glass slipper.

    Follow Saul Bookman on Twitter.

    Video courtesy of Javier Morales-Youtube.

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