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Scratchin' and Clawin'
Alexander Wolff
April 07, 1997
In a Cat fight that went into overtime, youthful Arizona upset Kentucky to win the NCAA title
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April 07, 1997

Scratchin' And Clawin'

In a Cat fight that went into overtime, youthful Arizona upset Kentucky to win the NCAA title

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No Tub of Gatorade could have done the moment justice. It took young fingers to do the honors properly, digits belonging to 21-year-old Arizona forward Bennett Davison. Wildcats coach Lute Olson—the man from Glad, the man off the wedding cake, the man with a North Dakota upbringing marked by bitter winters and stern moral stricture—was striding up the sideline in Indianapolis's RCA Dome just before midnight on Monday with every bit of his notorious stoicism intact. He was a fresh claimant of a national championship, his and his school's first, but he was absolutely stone-faced as he made his way to congratulate Kentucky coach Rick Pitino following Arizona's 84-79 overtime victory.

That's when Davison caught up with his coach and began massaging that famously perfect white coif. Olson's face cleaved into a smile, and the world knew for sure what it must have momentarily doubted: that Arizona had indeed just won an NCAA title. "Coach can relax now," Davison would say later. "He can finally let his hair down."

In winning, Arizona had taken out three of the game's hoariest programs, Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky, with no muss. The fourth-seeded Wildcats had beaten those three, each a No. 1 seed, with no fuss. Now it was time for some serious dishevelment. After his team beat North Carolina 66-58 on Saturday to gain a berth in his first final in four tries, Olson said, "As long as we've come this far, we might as well win it on Monday." Say it with an upper Midwest inflection, and that line could have been lifted straight from the script of the movie Fargo.

Arizona, a team that had muddled through the season as 65% free throw shooters, sank 82% of its foul shots in the title game. A team that had played 12 games decided by five points or less beat a team that had won only one close game all year and ended its season 0-3 when pushed to overtime. How loose was Arizona? Miles Simon, the Wildcats' imperturbable junior guard, played more than a minute of the extra session with the laces of one shoe untied.

Arizona's Wildcats beat Kentucky's Wildcats in a game with the same narrow contours as a catwalk. A sloppy first half gave way to a magnificent second half and then five minutes more. Twenty times the score was tied; 18 times the lead changed hands. Not until 13.8 seconds remained in OT, and Kentucky's only hope rested with desperate fouls, did either team seize a lead of more than six points.

Such a game would be won in the back-court, and two of Arizona's guards, Simon and freshman point man Mike Bibby, made the decisive plays. Again and again Simon danced into the lane, either to squeeze off gentle floaters or to draw fouls from late-arriving Kentucky defenders. As he paraded to the line for 17 free throws, Simon could think only of the film he had seen on Sunday of South Carolina shooting 44 free throws in beating Kentucky on March 2. "They can't stop me," he told his teammates in the huddle at one point during the first half. In the end Simon was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player for his 30 points on Monday, 14 from the free throw line, where he spent much of the night, thanks to his shoulder-dipping up-and-under moves. "I can't believe they kept falling for the same trick," said Arizona's small forward, Michael Dickerson.

For his part Bibby contributed three three-pointers, three steals and 19 points while routinely busting out of double teams that often included Kentucky's 6'7" All-America, Ron Mercer. Bibby is believed to be the first freshman point guard ever to pilot a team to a national championship.

Both Simon and Bibby have athletic relatives who kept up with the weekend's drama. Moments after the game ended Simon found his sister, Charisse, in the stands. She handed him a cellular phone so he could speak to her husband, a certain Yankee outfielder who was on the line from Seattle, awaiting the defending World Series champs' Opening Day game with the Mariners. "What's up?" Simon asked Darryl Strawberry.

"Now we have two championships to celebrate," Charisse said.

Bibby's personal drama is still a work in progress. He's estranged from his father. Henry, who is now the coach at Southern Cal. But on Friday, Henry tracked his son down in the lobby of the team's hotel. What Henry said, his son wouldn't say; Mike spent the week robotically repeating, "I'm not answering any questions about my father," each time one was posed. But his mother, Virginia, wasn't so reticent—though it must be noted that she is in the midst of an acrimonious divorce proceeding with Mike's father. "[Henry] was hiding in the hotel," she said on Monday night. "He just popped out and said, 'Can I talk to you for a second?' He spoke, not Mike. Then he talked to a TV station and said he had a meeting with Mike. He should have left the kid alone. He just wanted the stage. I wish it was for the right reason, to be a father. Unfortunately, I know it wasn't."

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