Surprise! Top 'Cats Arizona's Kentucky comes back to force overtime, but loses title, 84-79; Simon's 30 lift No. 4 seed; Arizona is 1st to beat three No. 1 seeds

THE BALTIMORE SUN

INDIANAPOLIS -- Miles Simon is not a student of college basketball history, recent or otherwise. The Arizona junior guard had no clue who "Danny and the Miracles" were, when former Kansas star Danny Manning and the 1988 Kansas Jayhawks were mentioned to him on the eve of last night's NCAA championship game.

He thought they were a singing group.

But Simon is now part of that history, and so is Arizona.

Just call them "Miles and the Miracles, Part II."

With Simon outplaying Kentucky star Ron Mercer, and with the underdog Wildcats outshooting their more fabled and favored nicknamesakes here at the RCA Dome, Arizona upset the defending national champion in overtime, 84-79, to give long-maligned coach Lute Olson his first NCAA title.

Arizona (25-9) became the lowest seed to win a national championship since the sixth-seeded Jayhawks did it by beating top-seeded Oklahoma in Kansas City, Mo., nine years ago. These Wildcats also became the first team to beat three top seeds -- Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky -- since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. It gave Olson some redemption in a career known for early NCAA tournament exits.

"I don't think this will sink in for a while," said Olson, whose 14 years at Arizona included two previous Final Four trips that each ended with semifinal losses and a number of mind-boggling defeats to lower-seeded teams. "It's kind of like a dream. The thing I'm pleased with is this is one tough group of 'Cats."

Said Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, whose own Wildcats were denied a chance to become the second team this decade to repeat, "I know what it's like to win a national championship. It's a lifelong dream. And as a man who worked so hard and has earned his championship, I'm really happy for Lute Olson."

Arizona won the first overtime championship game in eight years at the free-throw line, scoring all 10 of its overtime points on 14 foul shots and hitting 34 of 41 overall. Simon, who hit 14 of 17 from the line, had the last four to seal the victory and finish with 30 points, to 13 for Mercer.

"I didn't want to let my teammates down," said Simon, the leader of a team without a single senior in its regular rotation. "They tried to wear us down, and our legs pulled it out in the end. We're here now, we're not a year away. I think we went into the Final Four with an advantage, we didn't have a care in the world. We weren't nervous out there."

Despite a mostly Kentucky crowd of 47,028 turning the building into Rupp Arena North, the tournament Most Valuable Player did his best to silence them. So did freshman point guard Mike Bibby, who finished with 19 points and nine rebounds and, despite making eight turnovers, handled the opposing Wildcats' pressure well.

"It affected us a little," said Bibby, the first freshman point guard to help his team win an NCAA title in the quarter-century since first-year players were eligible. "But we stayed confident with the ball and kept waiting for our shots to fall."

The press lost its teeth when Kentucky came out shooting poorly, going 12 of 34 in the first half as Mercer, who scored 20 in last year's championship game victory over Syracuse, was held to just three. Then the press lost its heart when point guard Wayne Turner picked up his third personal 22 seconds into the second half.

"Having Wayne Turner in some foul trouble was also tough on us," said Pitino.

It allowed Arizona, which trailed by one early in the second half, to lead by as many as six and build some momentum as well as confidence. To its credit, Kentucky came back and turned a 46-40 deficit into a 47-46 lead. It came on a three-point play by Mercer, who made a back-to-the-basket scoop and was fouled.

From there it turned into a wild shootout that resulted in six lead changes and four ties down the stretch. Sophomore forward Scott Padgett, who stepped up to score a team-high 17 points with Mercer struggling, hit back-to-back threes, but each time Arizona responded.

Finally, with Arizona leading 72-68 with a minute left in regulation, Mercer hit a three with 51 seconds left. After Bibby fed Bennett Davison for a layup with 18.6 seconds to go, Kentucky guard Anthony Epps hit a three to send the game into overtime with 13 seconds left.

But Kentucky ran out of steam and nearly out of players, as four players fouled out. Arizona led from the start of overtime, as Davison hit two free throws. After Nazr Mohammed missed the front end of a one-and-one for Kentucky (he was 0-for-6 from the free-throw line, all in the second half), and Donnell Harris missed a pair for Arizona, it seemed as if the overtime would be a battle of attrition.

"Every time we fouled, and a large number of times we've lost, we put the other team on the line," said Pitino.

After Epps missed on a drive, reserve guard Jason Terry was fouled and hit a pair. Epps hit a drive to cut Kentucky's deficit to two, but Harris hit one of two and Simon iced the game with four straight free throws. As the clock ticked away, the Kentucky fans sat in stunned silence and a couple of thousand Arizona fans scattered about the huge building rejoiced.

Clearly, it was Simon who carried his young teammates on his own tattooed shoulders, just the way Manning did nine years ago. It was redemption of sorts for him too, since he took a lot of criticism after being declared academically ineligible right before the start of the season and then missed the team's first 11 games.

"It's unbelievable," said Simon, who scored 24 points in Arizona's semifinal win over North Carolina and 30 in its Midwest Regional championship win over Providence. "To come out -- and I just don't know -- I gave it my all."

Said Mercer: "You can't take any credit away from the way they played defense. Every time I came around a screen, they had two guys there. That made it very tough to score. Simon did the little extras they needed to win. He just did everything for them."

Just call it "Miles and the Miracles, Part II."

Sleeping giants

The most losses for an NCAA men's basketball champion and their tournament seeding:

School .. .. .. Year .. .. Rec. .. Seed

Kansas .. .. .. 1988 .. .. 27-11 . No. 6

Villanova .. .. 1985 .. .. 25-10 . No. 8

N.C. State . .. 1983 .. .. 26-10 . No. 6

Arizona . .. .. 1997 .. .. 25-9 .. No. 4

Indiana . .. .. 1981 .. .. 26-9 .. No. 3

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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