Simon says it all with his MVP play

April 01, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

INDIANAPOLIS -- You will remember him floating through the lane, fighting through screens, dropping to his knees and cradling the ball when it was over.

You will remember his team making history by defeating three No. 1 seeds, first Kansas, then North Carolina, then defending champion Kentucky.

In overtime.

In the NCAA tournament final.

Miles Simon scored 30 points in Arizona's stunning 84-79 victory over Kentucky last night, denied Ron Mercer the ball in overtime, hit the final four free throws.

It might not have been the biggest upset in a title game, but for sheer drama, it was right there with Villanova over Georgetown, right there with North Carolina State over Houston, right there with any of them.

A flustered Mercer scored only 13 points. Four Kentucky players fouled out. And the defending champions needed two three-pointers in the final minute of regulation to force overtime.

It was a terrific ending to a terrific season, and the tournament MVP was a player many fans never heard of a month ago, a player who might not make the NBA, a player who epitomizes Arizona and this new era of college basketball.

"Nothing better than this! Nothing better!" Simon shouted during his CBS post-game interview. "When I shot my last free throw, chills went through my body."

From halftime on, with the tension rising on each possession, chills went through the entire crowd of 47,000. There were 20 ties and 18 lead changes. Arizona shot 0-for-4 in overtime, but made 10 free throws.

Lute Olson over Rick Pitino. Who could have imagined? When it was over, Arizona's Bennett Davison mussed Olson's famously coiffed white hair. It was the coach's first national championship, but all he could talk about was his players.

"This is one tough group of 'Cats," Olson told the roaring crowd.

But so was Kentucky's. Pitino lost four players to the NBA draft this season. Another transferred. Another was redshirted. And then Derek Anderson, his leading scorer, tore a knee ligament on Jan. 18.

When Anderson's replacement, Allen Edwards, suffered a stress fracture in his ankle, it left Kentucky with only 10 healthy players for the tournament -- six by the end of last night's game.

What more could Pitino ask?

"It's the same feeling as winning a championship," he said. "We don't have a first-place trophy. But I'm just as proud of this team as I was of last year's team, maybe more."

Pitino dismissed fatigue as an excuse -- "they were fatigued also" -- but clearly, Kentucky wasn't Kentucky. It didn't press as frequently or as ferociously as usual. And Mercer, in particular, looked slow and lethargic.

Simon, by contrast, was a blur, slicing through defenders, getting to the foul line an astounding 17 times, committing only three turnovers in 40 minutes.

"That's the best game I've seen him play yet," said freshman point guard Mike Bibby, Arizona's second-leading scorer with 19 points. "He's been carrying us on his shoulders, and he came through again."

But don't ask Simon how.

"I just gave it my all," the junior swingman said. "Kentucky, they wore me down in the first half. I was very tired. I called for a sub, I'd say, like three times. But in the second half, I just had to suck it up."

So did Kentucky, but CBS' Billy Packer suggested in an Indianapolis newspaper yesterday that Pitino's team might be tired after its punishing 78-69 victory over Minnesota in the semifinal.

It certainly looked that way last night.

Packer said Kentucky's predicament was reminiscent of 1983, when Houston won a draining, electrifying semifinal against Louisville, then lost to North Carolina State in the final.

Simon was the one player on the court who seemed unperturbed, the one player who kept creating open space, whether Kentucky was pressing or not. To think, UCLA didn't recruit him, thinking he wasn't quick enough.

"The obvious thing that hurt us most were the up-and-under moves of Miles Simon," Pitino said. "When he drives, you see it on film, but it's very difficult to take away. He had fakes. He's a wonderful, wonderful basketball player."

And he's the main reason that Arizona, the No. 4 seed in the Southeast Regional, became the fourth-lowest seed to win an NCAA title. North Carolina State won as a No. 6 in 1983, Kansas as a No. 6 in '88 and Villanova as a No. 8 in '85.

Next season, with every starter returning, Arizona could accomplish what Kentucky failed to do last night: join Duke (1991-92) as the only back-to-back champions since UCLA (1967-73).

The Wildcats won with no seniors, no true center and no title-game experience. They ended the regular season by losing at Cal and Stanford, then had to rally from 10 points down in each of their first two NCAA games.

Yet, they're the national champions.

You will remember their fearless heart.

You will remember Miles Simon.

Recent title games, MVPs

Year Result .. .. .. .. .. ... .. .. MVP

1980 Louisville 59, UCLA 54 .. .. .. Darrell Griffith, Louisville

1981 Indiana 63, North Carolina 50 . Isiah Thomas, Indiana

1982 N. Carolina 63, Georgetown 62 . James Worthy, North Carolina

1983 N.C. State 54, Houston 52 ... . Akeem Olajuwon, Houston

1984 Georgetown 84, Houston 75 ... . Patrick Ewing, Georgetown

1985 Villanova 66, Georgetown 64 . . Ed Pinckney, Villanova

1986 Louisville 72, Duke 69 ... .. . Pervis Ellison, Louisville

1987 Indiana 74, Syracuse 73 .. .. . Keith Smart, Indiana

1988 Kansas 83, Oklahoma 79 ... .. . Danny Manning, Kansas

1989 Michigan 80, Seton Hall 79, OT . Glen Rice, Michigan

1990 UNLV 103, Duke 73 .. .. .. .. . Anderson Hunt, UNLV

1991 Duke 72, Kansas 65 . .. .. .. . Christian Laettner, Duke

1992 Duke 71, Michigan 51 .. .. .. . Bobby Hurley, Duke

1993 North Carolina 77, Michigan 71. Donald Williams, N. Carolina

1994 Arkansas 76, Duke 72 .. .. .. . Corliss Williamson, Arkansas

1995 UCLA 89, Arkansas 78 .. .. .. . Ed O'Bannon, UCLA

1996 Kentucky 76, Syracuse 67 . .. . Tony Delk, Kentucky

1997 Arizona 84, Kentucky 79, OT . . Miles Simon

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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