Greg Hansen: 16 candles for Arizona basketball

Arizona Wildcats have celebrated more than they've struggled since making Big Dance breakout in 1976
2013-03-28T00:00:00Z 2013-03-28T11:56:23Z Greg Hansen: 16 candles for Arizona basketballGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 28, 2013 12:00 am  • 

In Tucson, the Sweet 16 lost its innocence 37 years ago, or at least that's when it lost its ability to awe and intimidate.

No matter how many times the Arizona Wildcats play a Sweet 16 game against a titan of the game, Duke or Kansas or Louisville (so far they've done so five times and are 3-2), the fear factor can be no greater than it was March 18, 1976.

That's when Arizona was matched against third-ranked UNLV.

The Rebels were 29-1.

They averaged 110 points a game. (No, this isn't a typo).

Their average margin of victory was 22.3.

A day before the game at Pauley Pavilion, Pepperdine coach Gary Colson told the Star: "If Arizona tries to go up and down the court with Vegas, they'll score a lot of points, but Vegas will win."

Arizona chose to run. UNLV scored 109 points - and lost. The Wildcats prevailed 114-109 in overtime, in what at the time was viewed as the Greatest Victory in UA History.

It was the beginning of a wonderful relationship. Arizona has gone 9-5 in the Sweet 16, and a handful of those nine victories are among the most epic in school history. The Wildcats have beaten coaching legends Mike Krzyzewski, Jerry Tarkanian and Denny Crum in the Sweet 16.

They've also suffered two of the most humbling losses in the school's NCAA history: 88-67 to Oklahoma in 2002 and 103-64 to Louisville in 2009.

But as Arizona celebrates its 15th Sweet 16 today, we honor the occasion with 16 thanks-for-the-memories candles.

1. Sweet home, Alabama

Arizona 85, Kansas 82 • March 21, 1997 • Birmingham, Ala.

At 34-1, the Jayhawks were a consensus choice to win the national championship. Instead, Arizona went on an 11-0 run to lead 75-62 with 3:29 remaining. At the time, it was regarded as the most meaningful victory in school history.

How did it happen? Mike Bibby and Michael Dickerson combined to score 41 points, the much-quicker UA defense forced 18 turnovers, 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."

2. Lofton tumbles down, UA falls

UNLV 68, Arizona 67

• March 23, 1989 • Denver

In Sean Elliott's last game in an Arizona uniform, the NCAA Player of the Year left the court in tears, embraced by his mother near the UA locker room. It was most heart-breaking snapshot of the Lute Olson years.

Top-seeded Arizona led 67-65 and had possession with 20 seconds left, but UNLV's smothering man-defense forced a turnover. With four seconds remaining, looking for a desperation shot, Rebels freshman guard Anderson Hunt gave a forearm shove to UA guard Kenny Lofton. There was no whistle.

Lofton fell back, landed on his butt and stayed on the ground. Hunt swished a game-winning trey.

"All we had to do was control the ball and take the last shot," said UA guard Matt Muehlebach. Hunt drained five three-pointers to offset Elliott's game-high 22 points.

3. Salim goes deep

Arizona 79, Oklahoma State 78

• March 24, 2005 • Rosemont, Ill.

In a classic struggle against No. 2 seed Oklahoma State, the Wildcats were down to their last shot as the clock dipped to five seconds … four … three…

That's when Salim Stoudamire drilled a 15-foot jumper from the baseline, snapping through the net with 2.8 seconds remaining.

It took all that Arizona had, including a school-record NCAA tournament .660 shooting percentage against the Cowboys. Unsung hero: Ivan Radenovic was 5 for 5 from the field.

4. Battle in Seattle

Arizona 99, Iowa 79 • March 25, 1988 • Seattle

The Wildcats were 33-2 but couldn't shake Lute Olson's old school, leading just 38-34 at halftime, as Hawkeyes guard B.J. Armstrong scored a game-high 27 points.

But in the second half, Arizona was flawless, scoring 61 points.

"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, and Sean Elliott scored a team-high 25 as Arizona shot .561 for the game.

5. D-Will dumps Duke

Arizona 93, Duke 77 • March 24, 2011 • Anaheim

At halftime, trailing the Dookies 43-38, Derrick Williams had 25 points. He was so impressive that the Star's Patrick Finley phoned Arizona single-game scoring leader, Ernie McCray to ask if he was watching?

Indeed, McCray, who had scored 46 points in a 1961 game, watched as Williams buried a career-high five three-pointers, scored 32 points, and Arizona won with a second half to remember: a 55-33 scoring avalanche in which Arizona shot .583 and Duke .375.

6. Bring on the Bruins

Arizona 114, UNLV 109, OT • March 18, 1976 • Los Angeles

UA's box score spoke loudly: Bob Elliott scored 20 points and had 12 rebounds; Jim Rappis scored 24 and had 10 assists; shooting guard Herman Harris had a career-high 31 points; Phil Taylor came off the bench with 18 points and 15 rebounds.

To add to No. 2 UNLV's trouble, the UA defense was superb, limiting the high-scoring Rebels to a .438 shooting percentage.

The victory set up an Elite Eight confrontation, at Pauley Pavilion, against UCLA. The Bruins won 82-66, still special one year after John Wooden retired.

7. End of an era - sorta

Louisville 103, Arizona 64 • March 27, 2009 • Indianapolis

After the game, Louisville coach Rick Pitino was asked if he had interest in Arizona's coaching vacancy; his name had been strongly rumored to be at the top of Arizona's wish list.

Pitino all but scoffed at the notion; his team had toyed with the Wildcats so thoroughly, leading 49-28 at halftime, and by 39 points late, that the Cardinals put on a dunk-and-smile-for-the-TV-cameras show in the final five minutes.

8. Khalid breaks down

Seton Hall 81, Arizona 77 • March 21, 1991 • Seattle

After energizing Arizona in the second half of a Round of 32 victory over BYU, explosive freshman guard Khalid Reeves was limited; he had broken his thumb in practice a few days before the Sweet 16. He made one basket.

Arizona had a chance to tie in the final five seconds, but a three-point attempt by Matt Othick missed. Did it matter much? No. 1 UNLV awaited the winner.

9. Calm before the storm

Arizona 87, Maryland 79 • March 19, 1998 • Anaheim

The Wildcats won routinely against the Terps, as guard Mike Bibby made five three-pointers, and Bennett Davison broke out for 16 points on 6-for-7 shooting.

It appeared to be all systems go for the defending national champs, who would be big favorites two days later in the Elite Eight against Utah. Oops. Arizona was buried 76-51.

10. Sooners show up later, chase Cats away

Oklahoma 88, Arizona 67 • March 21, 2002 • San Jose, Calif.

At halftime, Arizona led the Sooners 37-33 and showed no signs of a pending collapse. But OU limited the UA to 29.4 percent shooting in the second half. Even leading scorer Jason Gardner struggled, missing five of six three-point shots.

Hollis Price was one of the top Sweet 16 opponents in UA history. He scored 26 as OU outscored Arizona 55-30 in the second half.

11. No three-bies for Louisville

Arizona 82, Louisville 70 • March 24, 1994 • Los Angeles

Denny Crum's Louisville Cardinals lived and died by the three-pointer. So it was fatal when Arizona's defense limited Louisville to 1-for-12 shooting in the first half, taking command of the game.

Khalid Reeves was the best player on the court, with 29 points. He got help from sophomore center Joseph Blair, who had an 11-10 double-double.

12. Irish eyes weren't smiling

Arizona 88, Notre Dame 71

• March 27, 2003 • Anaheim

Bent on spoiling an Arizona-Kansas rematch two days later, in the Elite Eight, Notre Dame couldn't find a way to effectively stop Arizona's offense.

Channing Frye had a 14-12 double-double, Jason Gardner scored 19, and Ricky Anderson grabbed 12 rebounds. Arizona forced 19 Irish turnovers and led 53-40 at halftime.

13. Snowed out in Denver

Kansas 83, Arizona 80

• March 22, 1996 • Denver

When Arizona left a downtown Denver arena, they were greeted by a spring snowstorm. It was similarly left cold by the Jayhawks, who had a 44-31 rebound edge.

Arizona played mostly without starting swingman Joe McLean, sidelined with food poisoning. Guard Reggie Geary, coming off a 16-point, 12-assist in the previous NCAA game against Iowa, was held to two points.

Michael Dickerson had a 15-foot jumper that would have put Arizona ahead with 47 seconds to go, but it rolled off the rim.

14. Rally around the Rebs

Arizona 66, Ole Miss 56 • March 23, 2001 • San Antonio

Stunned by the slow pace and by Mississippi's defensive intensity, favored Arizona trailed the Rebels most of the first half and led just 24-23 at halftime.

But center Loren Woods and forward Richard Jefferson combined for 31 points, and both had 11 rebounds in a second-half burst, leading Arizona to victory despite missing all eight three-point shots it attempted.

15. Arizona's Sweetest

1976-2011, Arizona's leading Sweet 16 scorers:

• Derrick Williams, 32, vs. Duke, 2011

• Herman Harris, 31, vs. UNLV, 1976

• Khalid Reeves, 29, vs Louisville, 1994

• Mike Bibby, 26, vs. Maryland, 1998

• Sean Elliott (above), 25, vs. Iowa, 1988

16. Pac-12's Sweetest

The league's 10 members, formed for the 1978-79 season, have discovered that it's not easy reaching the Sweet 16. Oregon State has never been as a member of the Pac.

The following are the Sweet 16 appearances in that span:

• 1. Arizona, 14

• 2. UCLA, 13

• 3. Washington 5

• 4. Stanford 4

• 5. Oregon 3

• 6. Cal and USC, 2

• 8. Washington State and Arizona State, 1

As part of the Western Athletic and Mountain West conferences, Utah made seven Sweet 16 appearances in that span. Colorado? None.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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