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The mood was more March than November, and so was the championship game between Arizona and Arkansas in the National Invitational Tournament at Madison Square Garden. The two teams went after each other as if the national title were on the line, as it may well be when they meet again, and nowhere was the intensity more electric than on the perimeter, where Todd Day, the Razorbacks' spindly 6'8" junior All-America, went head-up against Wildcat sophomore Chris Mills, the sloe-eyed 6'6" transfer who promises to be the catalyst that will elevate this Arizona team to new and special heights.
The players were old foes, going back four years to when they were constant combatants on the summer-camp trail. Only last summer they had been roommates while competing for the same position on the U.S. national team that played in the Goodwill Games and world championships. Day eventually won the job, at least partly because Mills was still a bit rusty after a year's layoff necessitated by his transfer from Kentucky. But when they met again on Friday in New York City, it was Mills who won their personal battle during Arizona's throbbing 89-77 comeback victory and who caused Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson to offer a personal tribute. "He showed me what a big-time basketball player can look like," Richardson said.
Mills also showed a national television audience—and the UNLV Rebels, the reigning national champs, in case they happened to be watching—and an enthusiastic crowd of 12,507 just how much he has lifted this Arizona squad, which now has every right to begin thinking about the Final Four next spring in the Indiana Hoosier Dome. All Mills did against Arkansas was score 29 points, rip off 13 rebounds and hold the explosive Day, who had scorched the Wildcats for 18 points to lead the Hogs to an eight-point halftime margin, to one point—one!—during the entire second half.
Day is a trash-talker who is brash when things are going his way, but he became so frustrated during his anemic second-half nonperformance that he got whistled for a technical during an unnerving, game-breaking 20-2 Arizona run in which the Wildcats transformed a 57-49 deficit into a 69-59 lead with 6:12 remaining. Also during the surge, Oliver Miller, the Razorbacks' 6'9", 290-pound center, was slapped with a T for popping off to officials after receiving his fourth personal foul. Moments later, Miller, who must earn to avoid referees as well as refrigerators, angrily tossed his gum on the floor as he stalked to the bench, proving that he at least learned something about New York etiquette during his visit.
While the Razorbacks were losing their cool right out there for everyone to see-prompting Richardson to threaten Day and Miller with one-game suspensions-Mills was holding the traditionally fragile Wildcats together with a dazzling array of treys, drives, rebounds and dish-offs. And, of course, there was Mills's defense, which, to put it bluntly, simply took Day out of the game. But perhaps Mills's most important contribution came in the locker room during intermission, when he joined coach Lute Olson in a vociferous verbal butt-kicking session that prompted the player's 6'11" comrades in the front-court, Brian Williams and Sean Rooks, to eave their normal passivity behind and become wild Cats in the second half.
"They made it clear that the big men had to upgrade our performance," said Rooks, who ended with 31 points and 10 rebounds.
"That's impressive," interjected Olson, laughing during the postgame news conference as he sat alongside Rooks and Mills. "Did you hear that, Chris? 'Upgrade their performance?' Is that what we said, Chris?"
No, it wasn't. It was much more graphic than that. As Mills put it, "There weren't any chairs thrown, only voices." If the Wildcats can continue to get that kind of leadership from Mills, to go with the inside dominance of Rooks and Williams, the solid backcourt efforts of the matching Matts, Othick and Muehlebach, and one of the most talented cast of reserves in the nation, then the Wildcats might finally have found the one ingredient they seemed to lack during the years when the teams were built around Sean Elliott, the smooth, All-America swingman now with the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA.
Those Arizona squads never were able to win the really big one. Actually, they never even reached the big one. The Wildcats got to the Final Four in 1988, Elliott's junior year, only to be erased by Oklahoma in the semifinals. The next season, when they were ranked No. 1 for much of the year, Arizona was upset by UNLV in the regional semis, a defeat that was particularly galling to Olson, whose contempt for Rebel coach Jerry Tarkanian is well documented.
At least Arkansas, which plays UNLV in Fayetteville on Feb. 10, will get a crack at the defending champs. The only way Arizona will get its shot at the Runnin' Rebels is if the NCAA somehow buys UNLV's desperate attempt to plea-bargain its way out of its current suspension from this season's NCAA tournament. The Wildcats and the Rebels, who had played each other five times in the last five seasons, don't meet in '90-91 because of the animosity that arose between the two teams last season in the wake of UNLV's 95-87 victory. Olson, in a huff, discontinued the series, charging that among other unpleasantries, UNLV guard Anderson Hunt had repeatedly cursed him and his staff throughout the game. Tarkanian countered by saying that Olson is a phony. "He gives this saint's image," said Tarkanian, "but that's false."