The 10-Year Dream

July 23, 2007

The University of Arizona’s greatest sports achievement is now a decade old.

On August 18 and 19 the Lute Olson All-Star Classic will be honoring the ten-year anniversary of the 1997 men’s basketball national championship team. Has it really been that long?

To make sure, I borrowed my buddy’s DVD of the ‘97 title game, which was purchased from NCAA On Demand. It comes in a simple-looking case and the summary on the back says, “This is coach Lute Olson’s only national championship.” Thanks for rubbing it in.

When you put in the DVD you’re greeted by a plain menu but when you hit play you get all 40 minutes of glorious national championship action. The interesting part is that’s all you get. The footage has been edited so there are no commercials, and no pregame, halftime or postgame celebration.

1997 doesn’t seem like that long ago until you see the on-screen graphics during the telecast. Add in the mustaches from some of the crowd shots and the surprisingly-big hair on the cheerleaders, and for a while I thought I had the 1987 Final Four instead.

So if you can handle a reminder of how old we’ve all become, let’s take a look back at the championship night that was.

We got a steal on the very first possession. Even though Bennett Davison blew the layup in transition, it was a positive sign of things to come. This team was just so quick, especially on defense. It’s safe to say the three-guard lineup of ‘97 was a better idea than the three-small-forward lineup of ‘07.

On-court fashion report:

-Michael Dickerson’s floating sideburns. He had the fade haircut and no beard but was sporting the ‘burns nonetheless. His facial hair looked as off as his shot that night.

-Jason Terry, the CATS socks, and the story about him sleeping in his uniform.

-Mike Bibby’s royal blue shoes.

-Young Gene Edgerson had the kneepads but no hair. Right when you start to wonder if it is in fact the same guy he bloodies a Kentucky dude’s chin with an elbow.

It was strange seeing Kentucky double-teaming A.J. Bramlett every time he touched the ball in the first half. By the way, what does A.J. stand for? Read on to find out.

CBS put up a graphic showing the programs with the highest winning percentage over the previous ten years. The UA was first at .812, followed by Kansas at .799 and Kentucky at .779. Wow.

1988-1997 was in fact our best ten-year span ever, but not by much. From 1988 to 2003 Lute’s Cats went 429-101. That’s a .809 winning percentage over 16 years, a stretch that produced all four of the Final Fours and nine of the 11 Pac-10 championships. More wow.

At this point in time Lute was 4-0 in Regional Finals in his career. This is not the place to mention he’s gone 1-3 since then.

I never get tired of seeing Mike Bibby throw that big league no-look pass to Bramlett for the basket and the foul. Aaron Jordan Bramlett, that is.

Michael Dickerson hit his only basket of the night only to be tripped by Rick Pitino as he was running back up the court. After this game I hope Pitino goes to a marquee NBA franchise in a major New England city and runs it into the ground before he gets run out of town.

We’re told the Pac-10 had a record of 12-4 in the ‘97 tournament going into this game. Remember, Stanford and Cal both made the Sweet 16 (the Cardinal ended Tim Duncan’s college career in the second round), and UCLA made the Elite 8. Good league.

You knew Miles Simon was on when he split the double team on the perimeter, then hit that running floater of his in the lane.

We shot the first seven free throws in the game. Kentucky didn’t attempt one until there were seven minutes left in the first half. This is what we call a game theme.

It sure didn’t feel like it, but Kentucky’s largest lead the entire night was two points.

There was an intentional foul on a Simon breakaway with 1:27 left in regulation that should have wrapped things up. But Simon only made one of the two free throws and a turnover ended the ensuing possession.

Still, we had a four-point lead with a minute left, and I know you remember this sequence. Ron Mercer hit a three. Bibby blew by Scott Padgett for a dish to Davison for the three-point lead. But with the clock ticking away Anthony Epps buried a three. We had one last chance but Simon forced up a shot against three defenders in the lane and we had overtime. Things certainly didn’t look good at that point.

Then on the first possession of OT up Davison? That set the tone for not scoring a single basket in the extra period. Thankfully Kentucky didn’t score at all for the first 3:14 of overtime. Nazr Mohammed and his six missed free throws had a lot to do with that.

Another four-point lead with a minute left, but this time Padgett missed the three, Miles hit two more free throws, UK missed a couple more threes, and that was that.

Which pun-tacular line was not used on the air?
A. “A Miles-stone victory for Arizona!”
B. “Simon says championship!”
C. “Bibby-dee-Bobbi-dee-boo!”

I had to put in my old VHS copy of “Cool Cats” to see Bennett Davison messing up Lute’s hair to make the night complete.

If you look at the box score from the game you see a lot of ugly numbers on the Arizona side of things. We shot 38% from the floor. We committed 18 turnovers. We gave up ten three-point baskets. How on earth did we win this game?

Thirty-four made free throws compared to only nine for Kentucky. That’ll do it.

The crazy part is, this wasn’t an exceptionally good free throw shooting team. We all remember Mike Bibby as knocking them down in the clutch, but he only shot 69% from the line that freshman year. Bibby, Davison, Dickerson, Terry, Edgerson and Bramlett combined to make 16 of 16 free throws on that Monday night and not one of them shot better than 71% on the year. Even Simon was only a 74% free throw shooter, so it wasn’t like Salim Stoudamire or Steve Kerr stepping up there and sinking 14 of 17.

The stat that I had completely erased from my memory was Bibby’s eight turnovers. As a point of reference, Mustafa Shakur only had an eight-turnover game twice in his four-year career. Mike did have seven rebounds and the 19 points, but it’s interesting that we remember him as this flawless phenom when he had his freshmen moments just like anyone else.

It wasn’t the best night of basketball ever witnessed, but it was a fitting conclusion to a remarkable March run. Arizona’s largest margin of victory the entire tournament was eight points. Every game was close, every game was tense, but every game was won by the Cats.

All that matters is the final scoreboard read Arizona 84, Kentucky 79 and they gave a shiny trophy to Coach Lute Olson. It’s still beautiful after all these years. In fact, it’s probably even more special now that we’ve gone a full decade without duplicating the feat.

Championships in the major sports are hard to come by and we shouldn’t forget that we have one more than a lot of other schools do. And if we ever get another one I promise to ignore any faults and exaggerate the memory as the years go by.

No matter how funny anybody’s hair looks.

[I will be taking next week off to rest my fingers before training camp. Get ready for another blast from the past ]

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