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 tournament history by knocking off three No. 1 seeds, first Kansas, then North Carolina, then defending national champion Kentucky.

In overtime.

In the NCAA final.

Miles Simon scored 30 points in Arizona's stunning 84-79 victory over Kentucky last night, denied Ron Mercer in overtime, grabbed the rebound that led to the Kentucky All-American fouling out.

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.

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

It was a terrific ending to a terrific season, and the hero was a player many fans never heard of before this tournament, a player who might not play in 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."

In the final minutes, 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 his 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 red-shirted. And then Derek Anderson, his leading scorer, tore a knee ligament on Jan. 18.

Still, that wasn't the end of it. Anderson's replacement, Wayne Edwards, suffered a stress fracture in his ankle, leaving Kentucky with only 10 healthy players for the tournament -- six by the end of last night's game.

"It's the most fun I've ever had as a coach," Pitino said afterward. "I had a lot of fun tonight. I'm disappointed we didn't win, but I walked off the court feeling so proud of them. They're champions inside."

Later, Pitino added, "It's the same feeling as winning a championship. 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 this wasn't the same Kentucky. It didn't press as frequently or as ferociously as usual. And Mercer, in particular, looked slow.

"I think we just wanted it more in the end," Simon said. "Their legs were tired tonight. We played with heart."

True enough, but CBS' Billy Packer suggested in an Indianapolis newspaper yesterday that Kentucky might be tired after its punishing, 78-69 victory over Minnesota in the semifinal. It certainly looked that way last night.

Mercer played 39 minutes Saturday and struggled with leg cramps. Point guard Wayne Turner played 39 minutes against Minnesota's physical backcourt, and then had to deal with the quickness of Simon and Mike Bibby 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.

"We didn't press the first 5 1/2 minutes," Pitino acknowledged. "If I had my druthers, we wouldn't have pressed at all. I didn't want to press much tonight. I didn't feel the press was necessarily the way to go."

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.

He was the tournament MVP, and Pitino hailed him as "an extraordinary basketball player." Said Bibby: "That's the best game I've seen him play yet. He's been carrying us on his shoulders, and he came through again."

And so Arizona, the No. 4 seed out of the Southeast Region, 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. And they're the national champions.

"It's kind of like a dream," Olson said. "I don't think this will sink in for a while."

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