Date story published: Tuesday, April 1, 1997
INDIANAPOLIS - Indycredible!
Kentucky and Arizona performed basketball's version of Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manilla last night in one of the most exciting NCAA Tournament championship games in history.
Arizona won - more correctly survived - the first overtime championship game since 1989 (and just the sixth in tournament history).
Arizona made tournament history by beating three No. 1 seeds. The third, Kentucky, fell 84-79.
In a somber yet quietly proud UK locker room, point guard Anthony Epps said it would be difficult to fully appreciate the game until more time passed.
"When I get home, when I get back to my family, when they show the greatest games, this one will be one of them," he said.
A tense overtime loss served as a bookend to one of Kentucky's most memorable seasons. UK (35-5) lost to Clemson in overtime in the RCA Dome to start the season.
Since then Kentucky demonstrated an iron will and irrepressible spirit that overcame obstacle after obstacle. But with the national championship only one victory away, that same will and spirit came up short. Barely.
Arizona, which beat No. 1 seeds Kansas and North Carolina earlier in the tournament, won the championship at the foul line. Arizona made 10 of 14 free throws in overtime. That nullified the fact that Arizona did not score a basket in the extra period (and had just one in the final 9:23 of play).
Fittingly, Miles Simon hit four of four free throws in overtime. He finished with 30 points and the game ball, which he tightly gripped in his arms for the final six seconds and beyond.
Kentucky took the game into overtime despite getting only 13 points from All-American Ron Mercer. Against Arizona's quick defenders, he got off only nine shots (his third-lowest shot total of the season).
"Tonight was very difficult," Mercer said. "Every time I came around on the curl, they had somebody waiting for me. I knew they'd be prepared. I didn't think they'd be that prepared. But they were prepared for everything."
UK Coach Rick Pitino did not cite Mercer's sub-par scoring as a key factor.
"What hurt us more than anything was Wayne Turner's foul trouble," Pitino said. "He was the engine that made us go in the post-season."
Turner fouled out with 1:01 left in regulation.
Kentucky trailed 72-68 at that juncture. Two clutch three-pointers got the Cats new life in overtime.
Mercer, who hadn't scored in almost 10 minutes, came off a curl -"My money shot," he calls it - and buried a trey with 51.1 seconds left to bring Kentucky within one.
After Bennett Davison hit a layup off a Mike Bibby pass with 18.6 seconds left, Epps calmly swished a three-pointer in transition with 12.1 seconds left to tie it.
"I took it because the clock was running out," Epps said. "I ball-faked (and lost the defender). Lucky for me, the ball went in."
Arizona did not get a makeable shot at the end of regulation. Simon's heavily contested leaner landed in Scott Padgett's arms in front of the basket.
Usually, such a rally at the end of regulation means tons of momentum to take into overtime. But not this night.
"With both teams so tired, I didn't know who was going to win," said UK's Derek Anderson, the injured star the Cats could have used but didn't. "We never had a lead to hold. They made some key plays."
A tight first half foreshadowed what was to come.
For the first time since Senior Day (and for only the fourth time all season), Kentucky trailed at halftime. Arizona rode good defense and a nothing-to-lose attitude to a 33-32 halftime lead.
Arizona limited Mercer to four shots and three points in the first half. Overall, UK often looked uncomfortable - Epps taking driving leaners in the lane? - while shooting 35.3 percent in the first 20 minutes.
Simon led Arizona with 15 first-half points. But it was more the way he scored that told the tale. He and his teammates drove fearlessly at Kentucky's defense, which needed to come up big if UK was not going to shoot well. The result sent Simon to the foul line 11 times. He made nine.
Perhaps out of respect for Arizona's three-guard lineup, Kentucky pressed only occasionally.
UK got an offensive lift from Cameron Mills and Nazr Mohammed. Mills scored five straight points after Kentucky faced its largest first-half deficit, 19-13.
Mohammed had eight points and seven rebounds in the first half. His production came in an area Kentucky figured to do well: inside. UK outrebounded Arizona 22-17.
Mohammed twice made put-backs that tied the score in the final six minutes of the half. He pulled off the shot of the first 20 minutes when he faked a pass out of the low post, then turned past a befuddled defender for a resounding dunk. The shot put Kentucky ahead 32-31 with 1:53 left.
Arizona got the jump in the second half. It managed to build a 42-36 lead with 15 minutes left. Three straight UK turnovers - an offensive goaltend on Magloire and two errant passes - fueled the mini-breakout.
Who could have been surprised that Kentucky gathered itself? Mohammed muscled in a low-post shot to get UK within 44-40.
A moment later, Turner went on a pretty broken-floor drive that he converted with a backhanded layup.
A turning point - if this game were to have one - seemed to come with 10:19 left. Mercer somehow made a no-look, over-the-shoulder put-back. Maybe more importantly, he made the shot while being fouled by Arizona center A.J. Bramlett. Bramlett departed with his fourth foul. The three-point play put UK ahead 47-46.
Sorry, faint of heart, but there were no turning points in a game that saw 15 ties, 19 lead changes and two championship efforts.