Hansen: The 16 sweetest, sourest snapshots from Arizona's Sweet 16 history

March 27, 2014 12:05 am

Greg Hansen, Arizona's premier sports storyteller, dips into his bag of memories and delivers the 16 most indelible for us as we wait for the tip between Arizona and San Diego State.

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  • ANAHEIM, Calif. — The most accurate judge of a team’s staying power at the Sweet 16 is that it played those games in arenas that no longer exist, are no longer used or have changed their names multiple times.

    Arizona scores big in the Sweet 16 test of time.

    It played the 1988 and 1991 Sweet 16s at the busted-up and buried Seattle Kingdome.

    It played its first Sweet 16, 1976, at the old Pauley Pavilion.

    Arizona was not-so-sweetly beaten twice at Denver’s McNichols Arena, first by UNLV in 1989 and later by Kansas in 1996. McNichols is now a parking lot next to Invesco Field at Mile High.

    In 1994, Arizona was a sweetheart, whipping Louisville in the Sweet 16 at the dingy Los Angeles Sports Arena, which is now largely Swap-Meets-R-Us.

    It has played Sweet 16 games at the Arrowhead Pond and the Honda Center, which are one and the same in Anaheim, Calif., and it was routed by Oklahoma in San Jose’s Compaq Center, later identified as HP Pavilion and now SAP Center.

    It has won a Sweet 16 game at the Alamodome and lost one at Lucas Oil Stadium, one in the heart of Texas and the latter in the heart of Hoosier country.

    Perhaps none of Arizona’s 15 previous Sweet 16 appearances was as memorable as a stunning victory over No. 1 Kansas in 1997. That bit of basketball magic was accomplished at the BJCC Coliseum in downtown Birmingham, Ala., which came off as a cross between a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey storage facility and an indoor rodeo grounds.

    It is now not-so-affectionately known as the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center.

    There’s a lot of Arizona basketball history in those arenas — new, old and those that have gone to the grave.

    When the Wildcats play San Diego State tonight at the Honda Center — the site of their remarkable upset over No. 1 seeded Duke in the 2011 Sweet 16 – they’ll be attempting to improve a sweet-as-honey Sweet 16 record in the greater Los Angeles area to 6-1.

    Arizona won in L.A. in 1976, 1994, 1998, 2003, 2011. The only setback was last year’s crushing Sweet 16 loss to Ohio State at Staples Center.

    The NCAA has taken most of the charm (if that’s the proper term) out of each of its host sites by installing a homogeneous court, one-size-fits-all, at every venue. The Honda Center will look exactly like San Diego’s Viejas Center looked last week, and the way every Sweet 16 game you watch on TV looks.

    But the uniformity of the stage has never detracted from Arizona’s ability to create Sweet 16 memories. Here are 16 of them (one for each year) to celebrate the UA’s 16th Sweet 16.

  • Before the 1994 Sweet 16 at the Sports Arena, Lute Olson and Louisville coach Denny Crum met outside of media headquarters.

    “Have you seen Coach Wooden?” Olson asked.

    “I spent the morning with him,” said Crum. “He can’t come to (tonight’s) game, but he plans to be here Saturday.”

    “Hmmm,” Olson said, realizing at once what that meant. “Only one of us will be here Saturday.”

    Arizona won 82-70; two days later, Wooden watched the Wildcats qualify for the Final Four, blitzing Missouri.

  • At the 1991 Sweet 16 in Seattle’s Kingdome, Arizona trailed Seton Hall by a point with 45 seconds remaining. The Wildcats had the ball. It was essentially one possession for the season.

    But Arizona’s coaches were caught between substitutions. Sean Rooks, the club’s best inside scorer, was en route to the scorer’s table to check in when Ed Stokes, the man you didn’t want to get the ball, asked for an entry pass — and got it. Stokes’ turn-around jumper clanged off the rim, Seton Hall rebounded, and Arizona checked out of Heartbreak Hotel a day early, losing 81-77.

  • In its historic first Sweet 16 game, 1976 at Pauley Pavilion, Arizona faced a 29-1 UNLV team that was averaging 110 points a game. Yes, 110 points. Arizona won in overtime 114-109. How do you score 114 points? You shoot 57.9 percent from the field, as Arizona did, and get a career game from point guard Jim Rappis, who scored 24 points and had 12 assists.

  • Not all Sweet 16’s turn out well. In 2009 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, 12th-seeded Arizona saw the clock strike midnight. Not only did Louisville win with ease 103-64, it ran up the score.

    In the game’s final minute, Louisville orchestrated dunks by end-of-the-bench subs Jared Swopshire and Kyle Kuric to hit triple figures. Afterward, with a mock smile, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said, “We do want to apologize.”

  • The most clutch shot in any of Arizona’s Sweet 16s was delivered by Salim Stoudamire in a classic 2005 game against No. 2 seed Oklahoma State at the old DePaul arena near Chicago.

    Arizona trailed the Cowboys 78-77 with 19 seconds remaining, got the ball inbounds and worked the clock. Stoudamire swished a 15-footer with 2.8 seconds remaining on a night the UA almost couldn’t miss. It shot a school-record (for the NCAA tournament) 66 percent from the field. Stoudamire finished with 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting.

  • In its first Battle in Seattle, the 1988 Sweet 16, top-seeded Arizona was matched against Olson’s old school, Iowa. The Hawkeyes stayed close, trailing just 38-34 at halftime, but it wasn’t close down the stretch. Arizona shot 56.1 percent from the field as Sean Elliott broke loose for 25 points in a 99-79 triumph.

    “I thought we almost played perfectly,” said UA point guard Steve Kerr. “It was exciting to be part of it.” Kerr made five three-pointers.

  • Playing in San Jose in 2002, Arizona shot itself out of the game, losing 88-67 to No. 2 seed Oklahoma. The Sooners’ star guard, Hollis Price, made six three-point baskets while the entire UA team shot 5 for 22 from three-point distance.

  • Arizona didn’t seem to have much of a chance against top-seeded Duke at the 2011 Sweet 16 in Anaheim. The Dookies had won 30 games, and Arizona was an interloper, having upset Texas in a round-of-32 squeaker in Tulsa.

    But Derrick Williams scored 25 of his 32 points in the first half, keeping Arizona within range, and the Wildcats then played perhaps their best single half in NCAA tournament history, outscoring the Blue Devils 55-33.

    “It’s insane,’’ said UA point guard MoMo Jones, who had 16 points in the 93-77 win. “We’re only one game from the Final Four.” (UA then lost to UConn.)

  • One of Arizona’s oft-forgotten Sweet 16 victories was its 87-79 victory over Maryland in 1998. Forgotten? It was two days before the heavily favored, No.  1-seeded Wildcats, were shocked 76-51 by Utah. Sophomore guard Mike Bibby was sensational, scoring 26 points as the UA defense limited the Terps to 37.2 percent shooting.

  • Nominations are now open for the most heartbreaking loss in UA history. The 1989 Sweet 16 loss to UNLV is usually a runaway winner in heartbreak categories.

    The Wildcats were 29-3, the top seed, but lost 67-66 when UNLV’s Anderson Hunt buried a three with 2.6 seconds left. Hunt gave UA guard Kenny Lofton a forearm shove before he launched the shot; the referees didn’t make a call. Lofton fell to the ground as Hunt’s shot hit home.

    It was Elliott’s final game as a Wildcat, and he went out with a double-double — 22 points and 14 rebounds — but the game’s star was Hunt, who scored 21.

    Most hurtful photograph in UA basketball history? Elliott embracing his mother, Odiemae, near the team’s locker room, tears falling onto her shoulder.

  • Sweet home, Alabama, Sweet 16. In 1997, the 34-1 Kansas Jayhawks were double-digit favorites to beat the 21-9 Wildcats. But on an 11-0 run late in the second half, Arizona led 75-62 and held on to win 85-82, possibly the most meaningful victory in school history, leading to the NCAA title a week later.

    Bibby and Michael Dickerson combined to score 41 points, the much-quicker UA defense forced 18 turnovers, which was enough to withstand a 27-point performance by KU’s Paul Pierce.

    KU coach Roy Williams was an emotional wreck, weeping openly at game’s end. “These kids are champions,” he said. “It’s almost cruel to have this end now.”

  • In last year’s Sweet 16 at Staples Center, Ohio State’s LaQuinton Ross broke open with three seconds left in a game tied at 70. UA freshman forward Grant Jerrett was slow to fight through a screen; by the time he got to Ross, the ball was gone, swish, and the Buckeyes won 73-70.

    Jerrett wept afterward, covering his head with a towel in the locker room during the mandatory 30-minute media period. Finally, after 23 minutes, Jerrett removed the towel and said, “It was all my fault; the same thing happened to me in my last high school game.”

    It was also Jerrett’s last college game; he bolted for the NBA D-League after his freshman season.

  • In the 2003 Sweet 16 at the Anaheim Pond, Arizona was a top seed, 27-3 overall, a big favorite over Notre Dame. The Wildcats didn’t mess around; Luke Walton had 16 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in an 88-71 victory, helped greatly by center Channing Frye’s 14-12 double-double.

  • Ole Miss arrived for the 2001 Sweet 16 in San Antonio with a reputation as a nasty defensive stopper. And it was. The Rebels led 24-23 at halftime but couldn’t take advantage as Arizona also played one of its top defensive games of the year, limiting Ole Miss to 34.5 percent field goal shooting. Star of the game? UA center Loren Woods not only had 16 points and 11 rebounds but made all eight of his foul shots in a 66-56 win.

  • It is perfect timing, a reunion of sorts, that the Wildcats and Aztecs meet tonight at the Honda Center. They were on the same court at the 2011 Sweet 16: San Diego State losing a bitter 74-67 game to UConn, and UA waiting to stun Duke in the nightcap.

    Both were 30-win teams then. Tonight, the teams are a combined 63-8, both bidding to make it short and sweet.

    As Arizona has discovered in 15 earlier Sweet 16s, it is often both sweet and sour.

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