Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

These 'Cats Can Dance

Game 1: Simon says, Arizona reaches title game for first time by defeating North Carolina, 66-58.

March 30, 1997|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — How is this happening?

Somehow, with a mix of talent and tenacity that they have conjured solely for this tournament run, Miles Simon and the Arizona Wildcats are one more scrambling, scratching, searching, lurching victory away from one of the most unforeseen national championships in recent memory.

One more turnover-filled, awkward, rambling, sweet victory.

And after Saturday's 66-58 national semifinal victory over North Carolina at the RCA Dome before 47,028, who's going to start putting limits on this ambling Arizona advance?

Saturday, it was North Carolina, winner of 16 in a row before this weekend, that felt the sting of Arizona's anxiety-causing defense and dominant perimeter play.

Saturday, after all the smoke had cleared, and the oops had been alleyed, and the basketballs had ceased caroming toward the far-flung corners, it was Simon and Mike Bibby who made the biggest shots, A.J. Bramlett and Jason Terry who defended the fiercest, and Coach Lute Olson who made do with a skimpy frontcourt and erratic shooting.

For a squad experts have picked to lose at every step of the way, a group that finished fifth in the Pacific 10, Arizona is the impossible team.

"Kansas was penciled in to beat us, South Alabama was penciled in to beat us, Charleston too," said Simon, who led Arizona with 24 points, referring to earlier tournament victories. "So we loved it that everybody picked North Carolina.

"All of those teams that were penciled in to beat us are going to be watching the championship game on television Monday night like everybody else."

And Arizona will be playing in it for the first time, big-time underdogs for one last time.

"I sure hope so," said Simon, who grew up in Southern California as a huge Tar Heel fan, but was not offered a scholarship by Coach Dean Smith because of a backlog of North Carolina guards. "I hope we're predicted to lose by 100."

Simon said he enjoyed playing so well against North Carolina, but said he'd never been bitter. Smith, for his part, saluted Simon's performance--and explained why he didn't sign him.

"I love Miles Simon, and I loved him coming out of high school," Smith said. "But he wouldn't have beaten out Donald Williams as a junior, and he'd have been mad and gone home."

Against North Carolina, the No. 1-seeded team from the East Regional, the Wildcats were woeful early, falling behind the Tar Heels, 15-4, in the first five minutes.

Tar Heel sophomore Vince Carter was the high-wire hero in the early going, scoring 13 consecutive North Carolina points at one point by beating Arizona downcourt and finishing with force.

"It seemed like Vince dunked on us 12 times in a row," Bramlett said.

But Olson, getting his first victory in four trips to the Final Four, made an adjustment to send more defenders back to protect against Carter's break-outs, and Bramlett started swatting away North Carolina's inside game.

With Carolina post players Antawn Jamison and Serge Zwikker bottled up by Bramlett & Co., the Tar Heel offense wheezed to a halt.

"He had four blocks in the first half, and I think he got the Carolina guys looking, 'Where is he?' " Olson said of Bramlett.

Meanwhile, despite 12 Arizona first-half turnovers, Simon held things together with 15 first-half points, as the Wildcats pulled out to a 34-31 halftime lead.

"Miles kept us in this game," said Bramlett, who had to handle the Carolina inside game without foul-plagued partner Bennett Davison. "We really needed him to step up, and he delivered for us. It seemed like nobody else could make a shot, really.

"Then Mike Bibby got going in the second half, and with those two guys, along with our defense, we were able to pull it off."

Bibby, a shaky one for seven in the first half, made a long three-point shot with 15:04 left in the game, followed that with a quick jumper, made another three-pointer a few minutes later, then, in the killing moments, made back-to-back-to-back three-pointers to lift the lead to 64-53 with 2:24 left.

Bibby finished with 20 points--17 in the second half.

North Carolina rallied to within six, 64-58, with 52 seconds left, but never could make the big basket when it had to. Overall, the Tar Heels made only three of their 18 three-point shots, and guards Shammond Williams (one for 13, missing his last 12) and Ed Cota (two for nine) wobbled the whole game.

Carter scored only five of his 21 points in the second half, and North Carolina, which shot a season-low 31.1%, made only 28.2% of its shots after intermission.

Arizona, which will be trying to defeat its third No. 1-seeded team Monday, did not exactly burn it up, either, making only 33.3% of its shots (with Michael Dickerson going one for 10), but six of the Wildcats' 11 baskets in the second half were three-pointers.

"The defense I thought was good enough to win any game," Smith said. "The rebounding was good enough to win most any game.

"Actually Shammond, he's a dependable shooter. And we got him some good looks. I probably took him out too much."

And Arizona kept moving forward, this time, on the brink of glory--and, perhaps, mused Dickerson, receiving respect for what it has achieved.

"I don't know what we have to do--maybe win the national championship," Dickerson said, "and I think we're going to do that."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|