Surprise! Arizona top 'Cats 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.

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 famous and favored nickname-sakes here at the RCA Dome, Arizona beat the defending national champion in overtime, 84-79, and gave long-maligned coach Lute Olson his first national championship.

"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 ended with semifinal losses and a number of early exits from the NCAA tournament. "It's kind of like a dream. The thing I'm pleased with is this is one tough group of 'Cats."

Actually, Arizona (25-9) won the first overtime final in eight years at the free-throw line, scoring all 10 of its overtime points on 14 foul shots. Simon had the last four to seal the victory and finish with 30 points, to 13 for Mercer. Despite a mostly Kentucky crowd of 47,028 turning the building into Rupp Arena North, Simon did his best to silence them.

"I think we wanted it more in the end," said Simon, who missed the first 11 games this season after being declared academically ineligible. "Their legs were tired tonight. We played with heart. I didn't want to let my teammates down. I think we went into the Final Four with an advantage. We didn't have a care in the world."

Arizona, seeded fourth when the NCAA tournament began, became the lowest seed to win

since the sixth-seeded Jayhawks beat Oklahoma in the 1988 final in Kansas City, Mo. The Wildcats also became the first team ever to finish fifth in their conference to win the title and had more losses than any champion since Kansas was 27-11 in 1988.

The "other" Wildcats also became the first team to beat three No. 1 seeds -- Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky -- in the tournament.

The loss prevented Kentucky (35-5) from becoming the second team to repeat this decade.

"It's been the most fun I've ever had as a coach," Kentucky's Rick Pitino said. "I walked off the court feeling very proud."

After seeing a four-point lead with a minute left in regulation turn into a 74-74 tie on a pair of late three-point shots by Kentucky, Arizona went up by 79-74 by hitting five of eight free throws in the first three minutes of overtime. After Anthony Epps cut Kentucky's deficit to three on a drive with 1: 40 to go, reserve center Donnell Harris rebounded a miss by freshman guard Mike Bibby (19 points) and was fouled with 1: 08 to play. He made the first of two for a four-point lead with a minute left in overtime.

But Cameron Mills missed a three for Kentucky, and Simon was fouled as he raced upcourt. He calmly made both free throws for a 82-76 lead with 41.7 seconds to play.

With his team leading 65-64 toward the end of regulation, Bibby rebounded a badly missed jumper by Simon and was fouled by Wayne Turner, who picked up his fourth personal with 2: 33 to play. Bibby hit both free throws. But Turner cut Kentucky's deficit to one with a drive with 2: 15 to go.

Then Scott Padgett, whose three-point shooting had brought his team back from a six-point deficit earlier in the half, made both free throws to give Kentucky the lead at 68-67.

But Simon, who was clearly the best player on the court last night, hit a runner in the lane with 1: 50 remaining. Kentucky called timeout. Padgett then threw a pass away with 1: 34 left as Epps went the other way. Bibby then found Simon in the clear.

On the play that seemingly turned the game finally in Arizona's direction, Simon was intentionally fouled from behind with 1: 27 to go by Jared Prickett, who fouled out on the play. Simon missed the first and hit the second, with the ball returned to Arizona.

But Bibby's inbounds pass was stolen by Epps. Turner drove the right side with a little over a minute left, but the ball hit too hard off the backboard and Bibby was fouled going for the rebound with 1: 01 to play. His two free throws gave Arizona a 72-68 lead.

Kentucky refused to fold. First Mercer hit a three with 51 seconds left. Then, after Bibby fed Bennett Davison for a layup, Epps hit another three to tie the game at 74 with a little over 11 seconds remaining to force the overtime.

Despite the overwhelming number of Kentucky fans, Arizona came out unbothered. It also helped that Kentucky came out cold, and seemingly a bit flat, unable to hit its shots and therefore unable to get into its full-court defense.

Kentucky missed 13 of its first 18 shots, including three of four by Mercer. Arizona managed only six of its first 15, but it included a three-point play by A. J. Bramlett as well as three-point shots by Michael Dickerson and Bibby, the latter giving his team a 19-13 lead with 9: 40 left in the first half.

But Kentucky responded with a 7-0 run, as Mills came off the bench to follow in a miss by Mohammed and hit an open three.

Then Simon began to carry Arizona on his tattooed shoulders. His free throw started a personal run of nine straight points to help his team stay even with Kentucky, which got a pair of free throws by Prickett, two rebound follows by Nazr Mohammed and another long jumper by Mills to tie the game at 28 with 3: 37 remaining.

After Simon missed a wide-open 15-footer, Prickett was fouled inside and hit both free throws. Mohammed, who would later miss all six of his free throws, then blocked a drive by Terry, but Prickett missed a drive down the lane on a beautiful feed from Mercer. Reserve Jason Terry, who spent Saturday night hospitalized here with dehydration after the semis, hit a three for a 32-31 lead.

Arizona took a 33-32 lead on a pair of free throws by reserve forward Eugene Edgerson with 57.4 seconds left and, after Mohammed missed his second straight layup try with 32 seconds to go, had a chance for one more score. But Mohammed blocked Simon.

It was another horrendous half of shooting, especially inside. Despite hitting four of its nine threes, Kentucky finished the half 12 of 34 overall. Arizona didn't get off nearly as many shots, but finished an equally dismal nine of 25. Mercer took only four shots, hit one, and finished the half with three points. Simon had 15, including nine of 11 from the free-throw line.

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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