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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona basketball’s 1997 national championship a hallmark 20 years later

Arizona+forwards+A.J.+Bramlett%2C+left%2C+and+Eugene+Edgerson+go+after+a+loose+ball+in+the+1997+National+Championship+against+Kentucky+in+Indianapolis.+Arizona+defeated+three+No.+1+seeds+in+the+1997+NCAA+Tournament%2C+including+Kentucky.

Arizona forwards A.J. Bramlett, left, and Eugene Edgerson go after a loose ball in the 1997 National Championship against Kentucky in Indianapolis. Arizona defeated three No. 1 seeds in the 1997 NCAA Tournament, including Kentucky.

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.

The 1997 NCAA National Championship was the hallmark victory for the Arizona men’s basketball team, head coach Lute Olson and the city of Tucson.

The Wildcats faced tremendous adversity all season, beginning with the suspension of Miles Simon for academic reasons in the first half of the season. But, just like many other clouds during the season, that proved to be a silver lining, as Jason Terry assumed a leadership role in Simon’s absence. 

This proved to play an important factor because it built depth and leadership throughout the team that would ultimately pay dividends when the Wildcats got to the tournament.

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

But this isn’t a story about how Arizona found its way to the national championship. No, this is about the title itself.

The game versus the Kentucky Wildcats, college basketball’s all-time winningest program, was a benchmark for the program itself. Demons were exercised and legends were made as Arizona beat Kentucky in a thrilling overtime game to get a tremendous monkey off the university’s collective back.

The storylines were endless: Lute Olson vs. Rick Pitino, program seeking national respect vs. a blue-blood of college basketball and Lexington vs. Tucson.

Arizona was unfazed by Kentucky from the start, controlling tempo and playing with the poise it had demonstrated all tournament. Make no mistake—this game belonged to two men: Arizona’s Miles Simon and Mike Bibby.

RELATED: Miles Simon relives ‘unbelievable’ run to the national title in 1997

The tandem dominated Kentucky, accounting for a combined 49 of the 84 Wildcat points, en route to both players’ All-Tournament team selections. Simon played the neutralizer to Kentucky’ Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Ron Mercer.

Mercer was held to just 13 points while Simon scored 30, ultimately leading to him being deemed the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Even more significant was the Arizona defense that was able to create scoring opportunities in transition off bad Kentucky possessions. Arizona showed why it was an elite program throughout the game and that it belonged among college basketball royalty.

The 1997 team’s versatility had enabled it to play several styles, which was extremely important when it came to tournament time. Kentucky long thrived on full-court pressure defense and would wear their opponents down during the course of games.

But Arizona wasn’t your average team, bolstering four NBA-caliber guards that were able to reverse the trend and wear down Kentucky by game’s end.

RELATED: Arizona Wildcats make history, become first team to defeat three No. 1 seeds en route to national title

The national championship also marked the night Bibby became a national collegiate superstar. Since his Arizona high school days, Bibby never got the notoriety that he so richly deserved. That never fazed him, and he made it known how special a talent he really was. With composure unlike any other freshman to ever step foot in McKale Center, Bibby had a statline of 19 points, nine rebounds and four assists against Kentucky.

National titles are hard to come by; Tucson has grown to know this. However, one team defied that adversity and brought home a championship that won’t ever be forgotten.


Follow Saul Bookman on Twitter.


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