Olson vacation can wait Ariz. still on job

March 30, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

INDIANAPOLIS -- Bobbi Olson calls it the "save the marriage vacation." She and Lute take it every year at the end of Arizona's season. By now, they had planned to be in Acapulco.

"We hadn't made definite plans, but we knew where we were going," Bobbi was saying last night. "Lute sets it up just in case we lose, and then we just go. It's so disappointing to go back home if you lose."

Well, there's only one game left now, and the Wildcats are still playing. They've beaten Kansas. They've beaten North Carolina. And tomorrow night, they'll face Kentucky for the NCAA men's basketball title.

Lute Olson in the national championship game? Some would sooner expect Jimmy Olson. But here he is, conqueror of Roy Williams and Dean Smith, ready to take on Rick Pitino. Cool Hand Lute. The Magic Lute. Lute the Lion.

For the longest time, any mention of Olson's name provoked the response, "Miami of Ohio, Santa Clara, East Tennessee State." But enough about the ghosts of first rounds past. It's time to start a new game of word association.

You say "Lute Olson," we say, "Steve Kerr and Kenny Lofton, Khalid Reeves and Damon Stoudamire, Miles Simon and Mike Bibby." Three Final Fours in the past 10 years. Three terrific guard combinations.

Simon and Bibby combined to score two-thirds of Arizona's points in last night's 66-58 victory over North Carolina. It was perfect chemistry, perfect symmetry. Simon had 15 of his 20 points in the first half, Bibby 17 of his 20 in the second.

So much for the Tar Heels' 16-game winning streak. So much for a Carolina-Kentucky final. And so much for the Dean Smith Love-In. "Dean can't win the big one!" one of the 47,000 at the RCA Dome screamed -- as if El Deano were responsible for the Tar Heels shooting a season-low 31.1 percent.

Carolina lost this game as much as Arizona won it, but that's how it always is this time of year. Olson made a crucial adjustment to help Arizona rally from an 11-point deficit. Then the guards -- first Simon, then Bibby -- took over.

The result was Olson's first Final Four victory after four defeats, and the question now is whether Arizona can pull one more shocker against Kentucky. It seems highly unlikely, but this has been a crazy season, and a crazy tournament.

Arizona was down 10 points to each of its first two NCAA opponents, South Alabama and the College of Charleston. It nearly blew the Southeast Regional final against Providence. And after 4 1/2 minutes last night, it trailed 15-4.

The Wildcats started the game sending three players to the offensive boards, but Carolina kept getting alley-oops and layups. "A big-time coaching mistake," Olson called it later. And during a TV timeout, he ordered it stopped.

Simon hit two three-pointers, and suddenly it was a game -- no, a rout. Arizona outscored Carolina 43-23 over the next 25 minutes. And after that, the Tar Heels never got closer than five points.

It was stunning to see Carolina shoot so poorly -- Shammond Williams, Ed Cota and Ademola Okulaja were a combined 4-for-30. The Heels had averaged 80 points in their previous 10 games. And in the second half, they scored only 27.

In truth, Arizona wasn't much better, shooting only 33.3 percent, with three of its starters -- Bennett Davison, Michael Dickerson and A. J. Bramlett -- going a combined 2-for-17. But at least Arizona had Simon and Bibby to counter Carolina's Vince Carter.

Bibby, a freshman, is best known for his strained relationship with his father, USC coach Henry Bibby. But he's the best Pac-10 point guard since Jason Kidd, and he's going to be a better NBA player than his father.

He missed seven of his first eight shots last night, but hit five three-pointers in the second half, including three in a span of 2: 21 that helped prevent Carolina from making a late comeback.

"My mentality is to shoot the rock," Bibby said. "I'm not worried about what the time in the game it is. I'm just going to shoot. The way our offense runs, if we have the open shot, we're not going to pass it up. That's what I was doing. And I finally started to hit some."

The Wildcats did many other things well, blocking eight shots, fighting through Carolina screens, even rebounding from the perimeter -- Bibby, Simon and Dickerson combined for 18 boards.

They were smaller but quicker, turning Serge Zwikker into Stiff Zwikker, making even Antawn Jamison look mortal. "It isn't like we don't have any quick teams in our league," Smith said in protest. "Florida State and Duke are as quick as anyone." But neither of those teams beat Carolina twice, like Arizona.

The ACC is considered the best conference in the country, but Arizona finished fifth in the Pac-10, and now Lute Olson -- not El Deano -- is in the NCAA final.

Lute Olson, coaching a team with no senior starters, a team that committed only four turnovers in the second half, a team likely to be ranked No. 1 next preseason no matter what happens tomorrow.

"We've waited 40 years for this," his wife, Bobbi, said.

Their vacation can wait a little longer.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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