Heels, Arizona spin, dance on 'Cats waste lead, but top Prov. in OT


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- When Arizona knocked off Kansas in the signature game of this NCAA tournament, four Wildcats hopped onto press row for a joyous victory dance.

Reserve guard Jason Terry made like Tarzan and hung from one of the rims when a Final Four berth was finally secure last night, but everyone else from Arizona was wasted emotionally and mentally after the Wildcats wasted a 12-point lead and needed overtime to repel Providence, 96-92, in the Southeast Regional final.

"This is the most tired I've ever been after a game," said Miles Simon, the junior guard who poured in 30 points and was named the Most Outstanding Player in the regional. "Providence caused a lot of that, the way they were pushing, pressing to the end."

On Friday, the fourth-seeded Wildcats eliminated top-ranked Kansas in an elegant classic, and despite all the points on the scoreboard, the no-holds-barred match with the 10th-seeded Friars was much more mundane. For every delightful performance by a Simon or God Shammgod, there was an all-star forward disqualified on fouls.

The only similarity in the two games was Arizona's inability to protect a lead. Against Kansas, the Wildcats nearly blew a 13-point bulge in the last three minutes. Last night, they were up 82-72 with 3: 42 left, before the Friars caught fire and the attention of the 13,721 at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center.

Providence (24-12) tied Arizona at 85 on Jamel Thomas' three-pointer from the left corner with 15.3 seconds left. After the Wildcats (23-9) choked up one of their 22 turnovers, the Friars were in position to become the lowest seed to reach the Final Four in seven years, but Corey Wright wasn't close on a three-pointer.

In overtime, Arizona milked a 95-90 cushion through the last 40 seconds.

Lute Olson will become only the 11th coach to work four Final Fours on Saturday in Indianapolis, when the Wildcats meet North Carolina. It had the potential for being not nearly as buttoned-down an affair, but Pete Gillen, alias Joe Six-Pack, is going back to Providence with some regrets over the way his team lost its cool, and the game.

"Our kids kept swinging and scratching and clawing," Gillen said. "We lost our composure for a while. We got some technicals [three in all], our emotion took over and we made some bad decisions. I thought that was the difference in the game. Our best component turned out costing us."

Down by eight midway through the first half, Providence went to a 2-3 zone, much like the matchup scheme that Big East rival Syracuse used in its improbable run to last year's championship game.

It led to a 12-0 run for the Friars, but Arizona went right back on top by 49-40 five minutes into the second half, thanks in no small part to unheralded junior forward Bennett Davison.

Davison, whose specialty is shutting down All-America forwards, limited Austin Croshere to six shots and 12 points. Croshere also was undone by the officials, who called him for his fifth foul with 9: 16 to go on a sequence in which center Ruben Garces seemed to rough up Davison even more.

A 61-55 deficit rapidly grew to a 12-point hole for Providence.

After Davison's first free throw, Garces and Donnell Harris were called for coincidental technicals that canceled out each other, but Thomas was charged with a contact technical and the Wildcats got two more free throws. When they retained possession and Simon hit a three from the left corner, it was a six-point trip.

Two minutes later, another Providence technical gave Arizona a second chance for a six-point possession. Mike Bibby missed two free throws, but the Friars were down 74-62 with 6: 28 left.

"Maybe there was a little frustration," Croshere said. "Maybe emotions got the best of us, but our guys aren't going to back down from anyone."

The college's president had said Palm Sunday Mass at St. Paul's Cathedral a few hours earlier, but for all of the prayer in the stands, the Providence players made the comeback happen.

Providence didn't have a single offensive rebound in the first 11 minutes, but the Friars finished with 27. A. J. Bramlett, the Arizona center, fouled out with 7: 31 left and Garces, despite a stress fracture in his right shin and a broken finger on his left hand, took advantage of his absence to gather 18 of his 19 rebounds in the second half and overtime.

Shammgod, who had 23 points, was brilliant at the end, but Terry made a huge three-pointer with 63 seconds to go and a team that didn't use a single senior held on.

At the end, Simon returned to his favorite Birmingham haunt, press row, for a group hug with his mother and grandmother. A few seconds later, they were all on the floor in a heap.

The table had collapsed, unlike the Wildcats.

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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