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Arizona Scuttles an Epic Matchup

March 30, 1997

INDIANAPOLIS — After sneaking a nap between 4 and 6 a.m., CBS officials presumably had resumed their round-the-clock, high-pitched wails this morning in dread acknowledgment of their opportunity lost.

Kentucky versus North Carolina, a title game between the two winningest programs in college basketball history--the Wildcats lead the Tar Heels, 1,685 victories to 1,675--was left on the cutting-room floor Saturday thanks to ratings-wrecker Arizona.

So now what?

So now you get two hours of game announcers tripping over their tongues about the Wildcats.

"Boy, the Wildcats are sure playing great," Billy Packer will say.

"Hey, the Wildcats aren't bad, either," Jim Nantz will respond.

It could have been Dean Smith versus Rick Pitino. It could have been a contender.

Instead, it's Arizona versus Kentucky for Monday night's national title at the RCA Dome, the other Brickyard in Indy (can anyone in this sport make an open jump shot?).

The dream matchup is dust because the fifth-place team in the Pacific 10 Conference, Arizona, had this notion it could waltz through its bracket and knock off one storied program after anther.

Last week it was Kansas.

Saturday it was North Carolina.

There was nary an Arizona believer among the horde.

In a survey of 20 national writers in Saturday's Indianapolis Star, not one picked Arizona to win the title.

Jim Harrick, the former UCLA coach-turned softball-question lobbing sportscaster for Fox Sports West, has picked Arizona to lose each round of the tournament starting with South Alabama.

But what does he know about basketball?

Arizona advanced to its first title-game after surviving one of the ugliest national semifinal games on record.

Arizona, the winner, made 33.3% of its field-goal attempts, slightly better than the atrocious 31.1% offered by North Carolina.

Consider this: Only two of the 14 players who attempted shots made half of them. Sharpshooter awards were presented to Arizona's Donnell Harris (two for three) and North Carolina's Vince Carter (eight for 15).

The sad-shot list includes game-hero Mike Bibby, who was one for seven in the first half before zapping Arizona to victory with three straight three pointers in the final 5:36.

North Carolina's effort was unexplainable. The Tar Heels had won 16 straight games before the Arctic freeze.

Of course, coaches love to credit great defense when the game is revealed to be not as great as it once was.

Tar Heel guard Shammond Williams made his first three-pointer and then missed all 13 others he attempted.

Serge Zwikker, the team's 7-foot-3 center/barge, was an icy four of 12.

You would have expected more from a Smith-led team, even though the coach's 7-9 record in Final Fours is hardly legendary.

At least the second game had a pulse.

Minnesota promised it would have an answer for Kentucky's full-court press.

"If you check the stats, we only give up 62 points a game," Golden Gopher Coach Clem Haskins boasted before the game. "We can bring the heat too."

Oh, really.

So how come Minnesota allowed 78 points and turned the ball over 26 times?

"The Minnesota guys said, 'We've been pressed before, we know what the Kentucky press is all about,' " former Kentucky bench-warmer Cameron Mills said. "They had trouble with our press."

Kentucky pressed everything Minnesota owned except the jacket Coach Clem Haskins flung to the ground after his disgust with a referee's call with 14:31 left.

The outburst led to a technical foul on Haskins and Reason No. 637 why Pitino is the best coach in basketball today.

Seizing on Haskins' anger and a possible momentum swing, Pitino deftly summoned Derek Anderson from the bench to shoot the technicals.

Anderson was the team's star before suffering torn knee ligaments against Auburn in January. Anderson was presumed to be lost for the season but has made such a startling recovery Pitino considered using him the tournament. (He had recently ruled out that option.)

But when Anderson entered the game to shoot the Ts, Wildcat fans raised the decibels at the RCA Dome to Aerosmith levels.

"I was concerned about giving the team a lift," Pitino later explained. "When he made both, he felt great and the team felt great."

Minnesota mustered one last charge, taking the lead, 52-51, on Bobby Jackson's three-pointer with 10:50 left, before Kentucky left the Gophers in its rear-view mirror.

Another reason why Pitino is great coach?

Cameron Mills.

You hear all about Kentucky's blue-chip recruits.

Mills is a junior walk-on guard from Lexington who will never so much as sip a sideline soda in the NBA.

His father, Terry, played for Adolph Rupp, and all Cameron wanted to do since being burped was get a chance to sit on the Kentucky bench for four years.

Pitino's story (coach's embellishment) is that he told Mills he would never play.

Mills said that's not so.

"He just never promised me I'd play," Mills explained.

Somehow, by osmosis in Pitino's system, Mills has developed into a contributor. Having to chip in after Anderson's injury, Mills has become the tournament's unsung hero.

He scored 19 points apiece in wins against Montana and St. Joseph's, and finished with 10 against Minnesota, including one dagger-like three-pointer that pushed the Kentucky lead to 11 points with 4:17 left.

The coronation of Pitino, of course, has begun.

No way pipsqueak Arizona gets in the way of consecutive national titles.

Except that Arizona, with its three quick guards, reminds some of South Carolina, which defeated Kentucky twice this season.

Naturally, Pitino didn't know anything about Arizona after Saturday's game, but said his team would be ready to handle any South Carolina clones.

"You learn from South Carolina," he said. "I don't know how well we'll play [Arizona], but we realize what our weaknesses were. We got better because of our demise against South Carolina."

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