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If Roy Williams was ever going to win a national championship at Kansas, there was no better time than in 1997.
After losing in the 1991 title game to Duke and falling in the 1993 Final Four to eventual champion North Carolina,
Entering its Sweet Sixteen game against Arizona, Kansas was an amazing 34-1 on the season. The Jayhawks' only loss was a double-overtime, 96-94 defeat at Missouri in early February. Kansas would avenge that loss with a 12-point victory in Lawrence and then a 27-point thrashing of the Tigers in the Big 12 title game.
Prior to the Arizona Sweet Sixteen game, 25 of Kansas' 34 victories were by double digits.
Loaded and experienced, Kansas' starting lineup consisted of five players who all averaged double-digit scoring on the season, with junior Raef LaFrentz and sophomore Paul Pierce tops on the team at 18.5 and 16.3 points per game (ppg). As for the seniors in the starting lineup, shooting guard Jerod Haase pumped in 12.0 points per game, center Scot Pollard added 10.3 ppg, and point guard Jacque Vaughn contributed 10.2 ppg to go with 6.2 assists.
With the exception of Haase, Kansas' four other starters would all play in the NBA. While Pierce, Pollard and LaFrentz would have longer pro careers, Vaughn was the "man" on Kansas at the time, the college point guard that every team wanted, a great player, a coach on the floor and the model citizen who was the epitome of the student-athlete.
After waxing Jackson State and Purdue in the first two rounds of the 1997 NCAA Tournament, Kansas was expected to move on against a talented Arizona team in the Sweet Sixteen.
While this Wildcats team would have four future NBA players as well, Arizona was still young with no contributing seniors and certainly lucky to have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, having survived second-half deficits to South Alabama and College of Charleston in the first two rounds.
And yet, under the surface, Arizona was ready for this game.
Just a year before, Arizona and Kansas faced off in a 1996 Sweet Sixteen game that has somewhat been forgotten. The No. 3 seed Wildcats gave the No. 2 seed Jayhawks a run for its money, leading by 13 points in the first half and holding a one-point lead with less than 40 seconds to go until a Haase three allowed Kansas to survive 83-80.
That 1996 Arizona team was primarily senior-laden, with guards Joe Mclean and Reggie Geary, and forward Corey Williams having played on the 1994 Arizona Final Four team, and junior-college forward Ben Davis also in his last season.
Even with freshman star Mike Bibby and junior-college recruit Bennett Davison, Arizona was facing a very tall task in Birmingham, Alabama, on Friday, March 21, 1997.
After getting home from practice, I slowly eased into this Sweet Sixteen game, catching bits and pieces of the first half, and definitely surprised to see Arizona up two points at the break.
If I could go back in time and watch this game, I would have been glued to the television, and at the very least, I would have recorded it. For some reason, I was a bit distracted, though I did watch the final five minutes or so.
Amazingly, this full game is not on YouTube, though I was able to track its developments while reviewing the Sweet Sixteen game between Texas and Louisvile, taking place during the same time as the Arizona-Kansas contest.
Remember that 1997 was a time when not all tournament games were on their own channel. As a viewer, you got one game and an occasional "Live Look-In," and then had to follow the CBS Sportsline when the other scores would pop up.
With this in mind, here were some of the scores of the Arizona and Kansas game that I tracked as Louisville and Texas were playing.
- @25:11: Arizona is up early, 12-4 on Kansas.
- @29:43: Arizona continues to lead 19-12.
- @33:33: CBS provides a "Live Look-In" with Arizona leading 19-12. With George Raveling, Clark Kellogg, Pat O'Brien and Coach K in the studio, Jason Terry strips Paul Pierce on a drive. Coach K says that "Arizona has that look like it can win this game." Kansas has 8 turnovers.
- @38:18: Arizona's lead is down to 4 points at 20-16.
- @ Just before the 47 minute mark, Kansas has pulled out in front 25-24.
- @50:55, Kansas is up 30-27.
- @59:40, Arizona leads 38-36 at the break.
- Between @1:1:09 and @1:11:55, Kansas leads 43-42 with 17:40 remaining in the game.
- @1:13:44-@1:13:50, Arizona leads 47-43 with 16:15 remaining, and Dickerson pacing the Cats with 15 points.
- @1:15:53, Arizona is leading 47-45 with 15:53 to go in the game.
- @1:20:10, Arizona leads 51-45 with 13:43 to go.
- Slightly before @1:31:05, Arizona leads 59-53 with 10:25 remaining.
- A few minute later, Arizona is up 60-53 with 9:35 to go.
- With 6:50 left in the game, Arizona leads 67-62.
- @1:45:00 CBS does a quick "Live Look In," with Arizona leading 72-62 as the game goes to the under-4 timeout.
- With 2:54 left in the game, Arizona leads 75-64.
- With 2:31 left in the game, Arizona leads 75-67.
- With 2:25 to go, Arizona leads 77-67.
- With 1:55 to go, Arizona leads 77-69.
- With 1:40 to go, Arizona leads 79-71.
At this point, Louisville has finished off Texas, and the YouTube video ends.
With that in mind, let's look at what's actually on YouTube of the Arizona-Kansas game.
- The first 3:40 of the above video shows some key first half plays, including a cold-blooded Bibby pull up, a beautiful Dickerson jumper for a 34-32 Arizona lead, and Olsen talking at halftime: "I think they looked more tired than we did."
- @4:27 Bibby hits Bramlett on a no-look feed, showing that Arizona is going nowhere in the second half.
- @4:43, Arizona leads 64-62 after a nice LaFrentz put back with a little more than 7 minutes remaining. Arizona suddenly gets going with threes from Bibby (@5:22) and Simon (@5:57) and a Dickerson jumper (@6:42) for a 72-62 Arizona lead. Kansas has missed eight straight threes. By @9:17, Nantz notes how the Jayhawks look tense as the game goes to the under-4 timeout.
- The only Kansas player who seems to have much life is LaFrentz, who is blocking shots left and right (@8:00 and @9:50 to @10:00).
- Out of the under-4 timeout, Kansas falls asleep on the inbound, and Bibby cans a three for a 75-62 Arizona lead with 3:27 to go (@10:12).
- The video then jumps around to key points, with Kansas storming back with threes by Billy Thomas (@11;28 and @12:04) and Ryan Roberston (@13:20).
- Just up 13 points only 2 minutes ago, Arizona maintains a 4-point and then a 3-point lead as Terry and Bibby hit 4 of 4 free throws.
- In the game's final possession, @14:15, Williams does not call a timeout with Arizona up 85-82 and the game under 20 seconds. Thomas misses a three, Robertson misses another chance, and Lafrentz misses a desperation three as Arizona survives these offensive boards and pulls off the tourney's biggest upset, 85-82.
- @14:39 to @15:30, Nantz and Packer are silent, allowing nearly a minute of natural sound to capture the aftermath of Arizona's shocking win, which would lead to bigger and better things the rest of this tournament. What great broadcasting, letting the moment breathe, the pictures telling the story.
What a game.
What a win for Arizona's program.
What a defeat for Kansas, which Nantz says will be tough to swallow for a long time.
As we know, Arizona would win the title in 1997.
Kansas would fall again as a No. 1 seed, this time in the second round to No. 8 Rhode Island in the second round of the 1998 NCAA Tournament, and Arizona would fall short of back-to-back Final Fours after getting blown out by Utah in the Elite Eight.
Early in the 1997-1998 season, Arizona and Kansas would play a rubber match at the United Center. I would be in attendance as Kansas got some revenge, leading by as much as 21 points in the second half, before the Wildcats staged an unbelievable comeback that would fall short.
From March 1996 to November 1997, Kansas and Arizona would play in three unbelievable games, with the events of the second game, the 1997 Sweet Sixteen, still amazing all this time later.