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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT | J.A. ADANDE

Big Dance Has Become Simon's Stage

March 15, 1998|J.A. ADANDE

SACRAMENTO — The options are starting to diminish for Miles Simon. He will either finish his college career with the glory of another trip to the Final Four, or go out at the same place his high school playing days came to an end.

The only sure thing after Simon's Arizona Wildcats defeated Illinois State, 82-49, in Arco Arena Saturday is that Simon will make one more pass through his Orange County home base for the Western Regional at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim this week.

"I can't wait," the Santa Ana Mater Dei product said. "I've already avenged some ghosts. I lost my sophomore state championship here in Arco, and I lost my last high school game at the Pond. I can't wait to go back there."

The past couple of weeks have been like a ceremonial tour for Simon. He got his long-sought victory over UCLA in Westwood, then celebrated all over the Pauley Pavilion floor before finally running to the locker room with his index finger in the air, a la Joe Namath.

Simon said he didn't even begin to show his full dance repertoire, and hinted there's more to come if the Wildcats win their next two games at the Pond.

"Could be," Simon said. "Could be."

The smart money in the West Regional is on the Wildcats, who get Maryland on Thursday.

For the first half of Saturday's game, the Wildcats looked like fraudulent title contenders. After pulling ahead by one early on, they let Illinois State come back and hang around. They weren't careful with the ball, they were forcing quick shots.

Then it happened.

After Illinois State's Dan Muller tied the score, 32-32, with a three-point basket 56 seconds into the the second half, Arizona decided that was it.

Arizona scored nine points in the next 58 seconds. It was the beginning of a 27-2 run, but really everything after that 9-0 spurt was overkill.

"Very few teams in the country have the spurtability that Arizona has--if there is such a word," Illinois State Coach Kevin Stallings said.

(It is a word. Clark Kellogg said so.)

You've heard of teams dictating tempo? The Wildcats dictated everything. They treated the Redbirds like a cheap temp worker.

Take a memo:

You're not scoring.

You're not even shooting.

And wipe that smile off your face.

That last reference was to some first-half smirks by the Redbirds that seemed to offend Arizona.

"It was the kind of laugh when you go up against someone that you know you're not going to beat and that you're staying close with them," Arizona guard Mike Bibby said. "I could tell it was that kind of laugh."

But during that 27-2 run, the Redbirds wore an entirely different expression.

"They were looking over at their bench," Bibby said. "They didn't know how to handle it."

"They weren't laughing then, right?" someone offered.

"No, they weren't."

The Wildcats had serious looks on their faces as well. They bore the look of a team intent on winning a championship, the look of a No. 1-seeded team that had had enough messing around from a No. 9-seeded team.

They took away everything from the Redbirds, punked them for their lunch boxes and their milk money. They knocked down passes, blocked shots, took charges, poked the ball away. The Redbirds committed turnovers on five straight possessions, once when they couldn't even inbound the ball within the required five seconds after Arizona scored.

"We just had to get our intensity up, and that's what we did," Simon said. "They didn't want to handle the press."

(Cue Jack Nicholson: "You can't handle the press.")

Bibby can find teammates with pinpoint precision, guys like Jason Terry can knock down three-point shots and Simon slices, dices, cuts and cleans.

Simon was right in the mix during that 9-0 bolt. His layup started the run, and then he took a pass from Bibby and scored on a left-hand layup plus a free throw for a three-point play. He passed to Bibby for a jumper in the lane, then chased down an errant Illinois State pass at the other end of the court and saved the ball to a teammate.

Sometimes it's like Simon, who finished with 19 points, six assists and three steals, can't help but do these things. Up by 18 points, he and Bibby were giving each other five following an easy Bibby layup when Simon suddenly switched into attack mode and denied an inbounds pass to two Redbirds who were coming back to the ball.

It didn't cause a turnover, but it showed that when Arizona wants to make things difficult, things will be difficult.

The Wildcats also have some strong words of warning for anyone who wants to mess with them. Looking ahead to a possible Final Four matchup with North Carolina, which the Wildcats beat twice last season, Bibby said: "If they want some revenge, they can come and get it. We might be even harsher on them."

They were talking as much as they were playing Saturday. Coach Lute Olson was making his usual smirky remarks about the supposed superiority of Eastern basketball teams. All that talk based on what really came down to less than a minute of play. And they were probably right. As all of those buzzer-beating shots in this tournament have demonstrated, sometimes only a few seconds can make the difference.

Arizona's 58 seconds on Saturday were enough to impress this judge.

Bring the dancing shoes, Miles.

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