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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Underdog Role Nothing New to Optimistic Young Wildcats

Final Four: After upset of Kansas, Arizona not scared of North Carolina.

March 29, 1997|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — They arrived as a surprise, suffused with guarded optimism and optimal guards.

Fifth in the Pacific 10 Conference, seeded fourth in the Southeast Regional, with nine losses and a freshman at point guard, the young Arizona Wildcats have thrived under postseason pressure, survived some nervous moments and made it to the Final Four about a year earlier than they were supposed to.

Surprise! All that's left between Arizona and the national title game is a semifinal matchup today at the RCA Dome against East Regional champion North Carolina, which is serving out a little destiny of its own.

Can the Wildcats, who probably would have been bounced from the Southeast had the draw been a teeny bit less favorable, beat North Carolina with the same kind of guard-dominated, quirky, quick, three-point bomb, cut-and-chase job they did on Kansas in the Southeast semifinal?

"We've been the least-expected team since the first round," Wildcat guard Jason Terry said. "We were the least-expected team in the tournament, so of course we're the least-expected team in the Final Four."

In the regular season, with freshman point guard Mike Bibby, or juniors Miles Simon or Michael Dickerson alternating poor shooting nights, the Wildcats were swept by UCLA, lost at Washington, USC and Oregon, and went soaring into the tournament by dropping back-to-back games at Stanford and California.

Then Arizona went teeter-totter with South Alabama and the College of Charleston in the first two rounds before going red hot against title-favorite Kansas for a tournament-rocking upset, and finishing it off by blowing a 10-point lead with 3:40 to play in regulation against Providence before winning the regional final in overtime.

Roller-coaster season? The Wildcats have regular roller-coaster halves, rocketing back and forth between incendiary play and staggering silliness from minute to minute, possession to possession and shot to shot.

"We set goals at the beginning of the year, one was to try to go through undefeated, all those tough preseason games," said Simon, the acknowledged leader who scored a game-high 30 points against Providence. "We had two losses.

"Next, was [to win the] Pac-10. That goal was not achieved. And we entered the tournament thinking we could fulfill at least one of our goals.

"There was no doubt in our players' minds that once we got our bracket, we could be here. We felt with our guard play, we could match up with Kansas, everyone had Kansas being here. But we felt they were going to have trouble guarding us."

Arizona not only handled the Jayhawks, forcing 20 turnovers and 32-of-72 shooting by flying at Kansas with incredible defensive pressure, the Wildcats knocked off North Carolina on Nov. 22, getting 31 points from Dickerson and 22 points and five assists from Bibby.

"It wasn't a case of our outplaying North Carolina," Coach Lute Olson said, "as much as it was outshooting them."

That was when Simon was serving the first of the 11 games he would eventually sit out because of academic problems, before North Carolina had figured out its rotation, before 21-year-old freshman Ed Cota earned the confidence of his teammates and before star Tar Heel forward Antawn Jamison had his head on straight.

"I remember how we felt the day after losing the first game of the season," Jamison said, "and I think we all hoped we'd get the chance to play them again in the tournament.

"Especially me--in the first half, I had no points, no rebounds, and I think I definitely hurt my team. I don't think I went into that game mentally prepared. I thought it was going to be an easy game for me, and they surprised me."

Jamison finished with 11 points and seven rebounds, but, as the sophomore eyes a jump to the NBA, he has averaged 20 points in North Carolina's four tournament victories.

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