The Magical Mystery Run: 25 Years Since Arizona Brought a Championship to Tucson


The Magical Mystery Run: 25 Years Since Arizona Brought a Championship to Tucson


The Magical Mystery Run: 25 Years Since Arizona Brought a Championship to Tucson


f you live in Tucson, AZ, you can remember the 1997 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament as if it happened yesterday. It was the moment the Arizona Wildcats solidified itself as a bonafide contender on the national stage. The players who took the court on that magical night in Indianapolis are part of a program that under Lute Olson, would launch a dynasty in the Southwestern Desert.

Rewind – Steve Kerr, Sean Elliot, And The Final Four.

In 1987-1988 the Wildcats would begin an impressive run in college basketball. Beginning in Anchorage, Arizona would dominate the Great Alaska Shootout. They would go to the great Northwest ranked number 17 nationally with little expectation of what was to come.

On November 27th they would beat Duquesne, number nine Michigan on November 28th, and then topple number one Syracuse on November 30th. They would return to Tucson ranked number nine and take down Long Beach State on December 4th, beginning a 71 game home court winning streak at McKale Center. They would then play two PAC-10 games at Washington and Washington State winning both. On December 29th, 1987 the Arizona Wildcats would earn a number one ranking nationally and promptly made short work of both Michigan State and Duke, winning both games at the Fiesta Bowl Basketball Classic to wrap up the month of December. They would finally lose at The Pit to New Mexico. Of note, The Pit was the last college campus setting that would host the Final Four. In 1983 North Carolina State upset the heavily favored Houston Cougars, sealing the victory with a last second basket. The video clip of NC State coach Jim Valvano is the most famous moment in NCAA basketball history and a staple of NCAA Tournament television coverage.

The roster from that 1987-88 team was the best collection of talent ever put on the McKale Center floor. Point guard Kenny Lofton would be a two sport star starring both on the basketball court and the baseball diamond for Arizona. Jud Buechler was at the small forward position, while Tom Tolbert and freshman Sean Rooks anchored at center. But it was two players in particular who put the Wildcats over the top and went on to capture the imagination and collective hearts of all Tucsonans. Guard Steve Kerr from Pacific Palisades, California and small forward Sean Elliott, a homegrown talent from Cholla High School in Tucson, were the stars who, along with Olson, put the Arizona Wildcats on the map in big-time college basketball. 

The Road To Kemper Arena – Kansas City, Missouri.

When 1988 rolled around on the calendar, Arizona was emerging as a team with Final Four potential. They would compile a regular season record of 35-3 and destroy the PAC-10 with a record of 17-1. The Wildcats would earn the number one seed in the West and get to work in Los Angeles for the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They would dispatch number 16 seed Cornell 90-50, then beat the number eight seed Seton Hall 84-55. From there, Arizona would head up the coast to the Kingdome in Seattle. In the Sweet Sixteen, Lute Olson would face Iowa. Olson coached the Hawkeyes for nine seasons. Sentiment was short, as his Cats won in the Regional Semifinals beating fifth-seed Iowa 99-79. On March 27th, 1988, the Arizona Wildcats beat the number two seed North Carolina in the Regional Final to advance to its first Final Four in school history.

The Road Would End In Kansas City.

The Cats rolled into Kemper Arena as a favorite who few knew or considered at the tip of The Great Alaska Shootout. Four months later after beating Duquesne, Arizona would make its debut in the Final Four. The field of 64 had been whittled down to four teams: Arizona, Oklahoma, Duke, and Kansas. On April 2nd, the Wildcats would lose to head coach Billy Tubbs and the Oklahoma Sooners 86-78. Kansas would go on to win the 1988 NCAA Title. Sean Elliott would lead the team with 31 points. While the disappointment was felt in Tucson, the Final Four in Kansas City was the fist of a few, with greater success still to come. 

A Season For The Ages.

The 1996-1997 saw an Arizona Wildcats basketball team finish the regular season with a garden variety record of 11-7 in the PAC-10 and 25-9 overall. Nowhere did a signature emerge that this edition of Wildcats basketball was destined for a Final Four run. 

On November 22nd, 1986 Arizona would beat North Carolina 83-72 in Springfield, MO. Notable wins that season included the aforementioned Tar Heels, Texas, and Utah in Anaheim. They also had losses against Michigan in Ann Arbor, and back-to -back-losses against USC and UCLA as well being swept by the Bruins. They would finish the PAC-10 season going 0-2 in the Bay Area, losing to both Stanford and Cal. Hardly an indication of what was still to come for Arizona. Still, this was Wildcat Basketball. This was Lute Olson, who won 10 PAC-10 titles, and four PAC-10 tournaments. 

With little fanfare, the number four seed from the Southeast Region, Arizona would make their way to The Pyramid in Memphis, TN. to play South Alabama who was the 13th seeded team from the Sun Belt Conference. The Cats would beat the Jaguars 65-57. In the second-round of the regional, the Cats would beat College of Charleston in a close one 73-69. 

Whether the national sports media thought Arizona was or was not capable of getting out of the first or second round was up for debate, but no college basketball journalist believed the Wildcats had even the slightest chance of beating the number one seed overall, Kansas Jayhawks. KU had won the Maui Invitational, won the Big 12 regular season, and the Big 12 Tournament. Head coach Roy Williams would bring his best Kansas team to the 1997 NCAA Tournament. Entering the regional semifinal game against Arizona, the Jayhawks had amassed an amazing 34-1 record on the season with its only loss coming in a double-overtime game against Missouri 96-94.

Williams would roll out a starting lineup consisting of five players who averaged double-digit scoring on the season. Junior Raef LaFrentz along with sophomore Paul Pierce led the team with 18.5 and 16.3 points per game. As for the seniors in the starting lineup, shooting guard Jerod Haase would contribute 2.0 points per game, center Scot Pollard added 10.3 ppg, and point guard Jacque Vaughn contributed another 10.2 ppg to go with 6.2 assists.

On March 27th, the Wildcats would play a game no one expected, and delivered to its fan base in Tucson a win for the ages. Lute Olson had a roster that when looking back, may have had more talent than any other Wildcats team. They were loaded with four players who would play in the NBA. While the 1987-1988 team had Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr, Olson had another special group with names that are absolutely legendary.

At point guard was freshman Mike Bibby. Guard Miles Simon, who was a junior that season, would log a field goal percentage of 583%. Jayson Terry, as tenacious as they come, was a bolt off the Arizona bench. Simon, who would be the calming influence and traffic cop on the floor, kept it focused. Junior Michael Dickerson, who had a great career at Arizona, would establish the kind of game as a Wildcat that would help him transition to the NBA. Reserve Josh Pastner, who seldom came into a game of consequence, showed the basketball IQ that launched him into a division I basketball coach. But against the top overall seed in the NCAA Basketball Tournament? Against a starting lineup where four of them would end up in the NBA? 

Worth remembering that in 1997, not everyone would be able to watch Kansas and Arizona. Back then, you would get one game, with CBS cutting away for a live “live look-in”. On this night, a good chunk of the country would watch Texas-Louisville. The only fans who could watch from beginning to end were in Arizona and the PAC-10 region, and of course the state of Kansas and their conference region. Gus Johnson and Quinn Buckner were on the call for the Longhorn’s and the Cardinal game, but their attention would quickly turn to developments in Birmingham, Alabama. 

The first half would see the lead change for each team. With nearly 56 minutes into the game, the Jayhawks would be up 30-27, only to see the lead evaporate at the half, and head to the locker room down 38-36. With 15:53 left to go, Arizona would have a lead of 47-45. As both teams broke the 10:00 minute mark, the Wildcats would go up 60-53 with 9:35 left. As the pace would quicken, Arizona opened up a 72-62 lead as the game clock would get to the under four minutes timeout. The Wildcats would not look back.

With only 1:40 to go in Birmingham, Arizona would lead 79-71. Kansas would try a furious comeback, but the number one overall seed in the tournament would fall, 85-82. As Roy Williams walked across the baseline to shake the hand of Lute Olson, Jayson Terry and the rest of the Wildcats would jump up onto the first aisle of press row celebrating a triumph not expected. 1,591 away in Tucson, the excitement and jubilance in Tucson was palpable. Arizona was now one win away from a trip to Indianapolis. 

With a winner “take all” in the Southeast, Lute Olson would have to rally his team to face the Providence Friars. 

The Friars and Wildcats would be in the last CBS window for this stand alone regional final. With twists and turns in every moment of this game, the sensational effort in beating Kansas would have been a footnote if Arizona lost to. Instead, the end result were numerous lead changes, great Providence defense, a lot of fouls in the second half (especially late), and an overtime finish still hard to believe. When all was said and done in Birmingham, the Arizona Wildcats would survive 96-93 sending them to another shot at a national championship, this time in Indianapolis.

One Shining Moment.

On March 29nd, 1997, the weather in Tucson was 83 degrees and sunny as recorded at Tucson International Airport. In Indianapolis, the daytime temperature topped out at a cool 51 degrees. Inside the RCA Dome, it was a perfect setting as the National Semifinal was due to get underway. 

The Final Four had three teams with experience in games of this magnitude. The number one seed out of the East Regional was ACC power North Carolina. Taking a 24-6 record to Indianapolis, they were an incredible and logical team to be cutting down the nets on Monday night. Out of the Midwest, the Minnesota Golden Gophers, also a number one seed out of the Big Ten and in their first championship weekend, would win the conference and finish with a record of 31-4. The West region would send another number one seed, the Kentucky Wildcats, to Indianapolis, while Arizona, an unlikely pick to make it to the Final Four, was the number four seed with a bullet from the Southeast Region.

Against number one North Carolina, both the Tar Heels and Wildcats would play a sloppy game in the National Semifinal. Both teams shot poorly with Dean Smith’s squad shooting 31%, going 23-for-74 from the field. Lute Olson and Arizona didn’t fare much better. The Cats finished 33% and a paltry 22-for-66. Michael Dickerson and Carolina’s Shammond Williams struggled with their shooting. Guard Mike Bibby, who had to go from a “freshman” to a veteran on the floor, started two for 12, with his points not coming until the last minute of the first half. At the break, Arizona would take a 34-31 lead into the locker room and try to figure out how to break through in the second half.

Bibby would finally get it going when the team returned to the floor, hitting five three pointers in the second half. Still North Carolina and the Wildcats would have miserable shooting. At the under eight-minute timeout, Arizona would lead 47-42. The Tar Heels would get to within six points with :30 seconds to go but would fall to a legitimate Cinderella by a final of 66-58. 

The Minnesota Golden Gophers were making their debut appearance at the Final Four. But for Kentucky, these games were “old-hat”.  The Wildcats were in their 12th Final Four. Head coach Rick Pitino was looking for a second straight national championship with only Minnesota in the immediate way.

Clem Haskins’ squad was unsteady immediately after the opening tip and would turn the ball over four times in its first four possessions. Kentucky would go up by as many as 10 points in the first half, only to have Minnesota rally and get within five at the break. The Gophers would come out firing in the second half and have an opportunity to tie the game. Instead, Haskins would get a technical. Derek Anderson would knock down the foul shots, and on the ensuing Wildcats possession would take an eight point lead. To their credit, Minnesota would rally with their own 11-3 run as Kentucky would go on a 4:30 second span without scoring a point. Bobby Jackson would hit a huge shot giving the Gophers a 52-51 lead. Kentucky would make their own comeback with five points courtesy of Nazr Mohammed and pull away for a 78-69 victory. 

“A Milestone Victory For The Age” – Jim Nantz, CBS Sports.

Freshman point guard Michael Bibby and Miles Simon were the straws that stirred the drink against the Kentucky Wildcats. Bibby was crucial in late-game situations, knowing where his teammates were and distributing the ball in such a way that defenders often felt they were chasing smoke. Simon was the floor general knowing where you’d be before actually getting to your spot. He knew the time on the game clock without even looking at it. It was seamless, and it disrupted Kentucky to no end. KU based its hopes on its pressing defense, but with the Wildcats offense, it would be up against an opponent able to match its quickness.Too often for Kentucky, Arizona’s possessions ended with Simon getting past the defenders and then floating through the lane for a quick jumper. Their quickness would often leave The KU defense out of position. As the game wore on, Kentucky saw four of its players foul out while chasing Arizona players, including first-team all-American Ron Mercer, who finished with just 13 points. Arizona went to the line for 41 free throws to just 17 for Kentucky. Simon was particularly efficient making 14 of 17. 

With just over two minutes to go, Lute Olson’s team would trail 68-67, but score five straight to go up 72-68 with 1:01 left on the clock. KU would find two three pointers to go up two, until Bennett Davison would drop two on a layup and force overtime. Arizona wouldn’t score another field goal in the National Final. The Wildcats’ aggression in driving the lane for cheap fouls would allow them to make 10 of 14 free throws. It proved just enough to end the night for Kentucky, and deny them a second consecutive championship. Arizona would win in Indianapolis 84-79 sending the faithful in Tucson into an absolute frenzy that has never been seen since in the Old Pueblo.

The number four seed Arizona Wildcats would begin their postseason run by losing their last two games on the PAC-10 schedule. The team seemed incredibly mortal throughout the entire regular season but found another unforeseen gear in the NCAA Tournament. Their tenacity and sheer will would overcome three numebr one seeds, including the top seeded Kansas Jayhawks. In an absolute stunner to open the Sweet Sixteen, Arizona would set the tone by sending the Jayhawks home in a season that was supposed to be a coronation. They would then send number one North Carolina packing and Dean Smith into retirement, followed by denying the last remaining number one Kentucky a second straight title. 

After the magic and charm that was Arizona getting to its first Final Four in the 1987-1988 season, to the meteoric rise that earned them a National Championship, the Wildcats were always a team on the brink. 

What began as disappointment on April 4th, 1988 in Kansas City would end in success 482 miles away in Indianapolis on March 31st, 1997. Arizona would make one more appearance on Championship Monday in 2001, losing to Duke 82-72. 

Olson’s program was a success on numerous levels. He built something out of the wreckage left by former head coach Ben Lindsey. Lindsey, who had brought the program to its knees, lasted only one season at Arizona, winning one PAC-10 game and accumulating an overall record of 4-24. He would be dismissed at season’s end and replaced by Lute Olson in 1983. Olson had taken Iowa to the Final Four in 1980. His eye for talent was undeniable, and the rosters he put together had numerous players succeed at the next level. 

Beginning with his 1987-88 Arizona team, Arizona would send Sean Elliott to the NBA in 1989 when the San Antonio Spurs would select him in the first round, third-overall. Elliott would win an NBA title with San Antonio in 1999. 

Kenny Lofton went to the Wildcats on a basketball scholarship and began to play baseball at Arizona his junior year. Lofton would make his major league debut on September 14th, 1991, for the Houston Astros and his career would conclude in Chicago as a member of the White Sox on September 29th, 2007. The career center fielder would be a six-time All Star and win four Gold Glove Awards.

Perhaps the most accomplished Wildcat player from the first Final Four team was Steve Kerr. Kerr was selected in the second round of the 1988 NBA Draft, and went on to win nine NBA Championships, including five with the Chicago Bulls and two with San Antonio. As head coach of the Golden State Warriors, Kerr would add another four rings. Without fail, this former Wildcat is the signature alum in Arizona basketball history.

The 1997 Final Four team and only National Champion for the program sent four players to the professional level. In 1998 Mike Bibby would be the second overall pick for the Vancouver Grizzlies. His career would span 14 NBA seasons and end with the New York Knicks in 2012. 

Miles Simon would be drafted in the second round as the 42 pick by the Orlando Magic. His NBA career was a cup of coffee in Orlando, lasting one season. He would return to Arizona as an assistant from 2005-2008. 

Michael Dickerson was selected in the first round, 14th overall by the Houston Rockets. His play in the NBA lasted until 2003.

Jason Terry had a very successful NBA career. He was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks with the 10th overall pick in the first round. He won an NBA title in 2011 as a member of the Dallas Mavericks. He would play in the league for 19 seasons.

Of course, the architect of it all was Lute Olson. For 25 seasons, Olson walked the sideline at McKale Center. In addition to the 1997 NCAA National Championship, the coach would reach the Final Four in 1980, 1988, 1994, 1997, and 2001. He also won a Big Ten title in 1979, as well as 11 PAC-10 titles earning him seven PAC-10 Coach of the Year Awards.

Olson would retire on October 23rd, 2008, and at the age of 85, he would pass away on August 27th, 2020. Greg Hanson of the Arizona Daily Star wrote, “Lute Olson has been judged by games won and banners hung, but it is the passage of time that will be his greatest test.” “Olson made our city feel good about itself. He made us feel like winners. Who else has done that? He changed the way we looked at ourselves.” October 29th, 2008, courtesy of the Arizona Daily Star –

Like all of us, we are mortal from birth to death. In the end, Lute Olson lost the only game he couldn’t win: the passage of time. He was a legend on whatever court he walked on, and is solely responsible for putting Arizona basketball on the map and along the way, established a level of excellence not seen since, and not likely again.


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