20 Years Of Victory: Arizona's Conquest Of 1997 And Biggie's Last Verse

Ayo, the sun don’t shine forever
But as long as we here, we might as well shine together
Better now than never… -- Puff Daddy, "Victory"

Basketball is driven by narratives, adjectives and cliches. It allows us as a country to throw on our old colors and root hard for our alma maters once a year. It allows us to root for teams with whom we never gave a dime the satisfaction of allegiance. March Madness is now upon us, and twenty years ago it was scored by the shiny samples and bravado of New York hip-hop.

While college ballers did their best to rock the latest Air Jordans and thumb through EastBay catalogs hoping to score the best kicks, the soundtrack for 1997 was all Bad Boy Records. The murmurs of Puff Daddy and The Hitmen only snared everyone within radius. Days after The Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in Los Angeles, Puff and company were in mourning. The feeling couldn’t shake and how could it? All he could do was soldier forth, while holding on to the final verses Biggie had recorded in Los Angeles. Nine days after the darkest day of his career, Puff released the darkest Bad Boy single of his catalog.

You know that I’m two levels above you baby…

1997 had its proverbial favorites in college basketball.  For the most part, they all ended up in Indianapolis for the Final Four. Dean Smith had arguably his most athletic squad at North Carolina, Vince Carter jumping out the gym as a sophomore, Ed Cota running the point and Antawn Jamison a year before he became AP Player of the Year. Kentucky was attempting to replicate something that had been done five years prior when Duke went back-to-back. The shocking emergence of Minnesota, led by future NBAer Bobby Jackson had brought them to the Final Four for the first time in program history. Then there was Arizona, the team with the most losses entering the Final Four. The survivors of the tourney. The school that averaged a margin of victory by five. Arizona wasn't just surviving in the tourney, they were death to rights on multiple occasions.

Head Coach and Team Dime. (Source: Elsa Hasch/Getty Images Sport)

Head coach Lute Olson led two squads to the Final Four before. There was the first squad in 1987-88, led by Sean Elliott, Kenny Lofton & Steve Kerr. The second further established the idea of “Point Guard U” with Khalid Reeves & Damon Stoudamire going toe-to-toe with eventual national champion Arkansas in ‘94. For Olsen, ‘97 provided him the charm. His fourth go with a group of fearless underclassmen; a trio of heady guards who wouldn’t quit on each other, regardless of how the numbers panned out.

How Arizona managed to become a) the only 4-seed to win the title, and b) the only tourney squad to ever defeat three No. 1 seeds to claim college basketball’s richest prize? It all started with a lineup change in the middle of the season.

Before the upsets, before the cutting of the nets, Arizona was in a funk.

Their returning leader Miles Simon had been suspended for the first half of the season due to academic issues. Jason Terry, the sophomore guard with the high socks and superstition had to step in and fill the role. Once Simon returned, Terry returned to being the squad’s sixth man. It was the only way ‘Zona’s guard dominated team would happen to work.

“I think he knew he was going to be in the game for the last 10 minutes anyway,” Olson said of Terry. He wouldn’t start the game but he would finish the game all the time.”

The team stumbled every time it found a groove, limping to a 19-9 finish. Their March 8th, while many had partied in Los Angeles, was spent mulling over a loss to Cal near San Francisco. Five hours down south, hip-hop history would change in the most unforgiving of ways.  The same day that Arizona suffered its final loss of the season, Christopher Wallace recorded his final verse.

Excellence is my presence...

Red & blue flashing lights, similar to that of Arizona’s school colors formed in a parade outside of Cedars-Sinai hospital. As a group of men and women wheeled Wallace up to a surgery table to save his life, Lute Olson had to think of something to save his season.

Fortunately for Zona, they managed a four-seed in the ’97 NCAA tournament -- stuck in a loaded Southeast with Kansas, Duke & Georgia, plus a sleeper in Providence. Against South Alabama in the first round, loss number 10 for the Cats seemed a foregone conclusion to the year.  Up 10 with 7:31 remaining, South Alabama as the 13-seed left the door open for a furious rally. A 10-point deficit became a 17-0 run by the Cats who avoided the upset and won by 8.

“I was scared to death,” Terry told AllSportsTucson after the escape. He didn’t even play well, making most of his work at the free throw line.  Simon echoed him. “The thought going through my mind was I didn’t want to go home.”

Against College of Charleston a day later, the mid-major of the Atlantic Sun conference that had only dropped two games all year gave the Wildcats another test. They led by one after the first half, 34-33, and proved they weren’t a fluke. Simon improved vastly over his sluggish round one effort with 20 points, offsetting CoC’s Stacy Harris who exploded for 25. Zona gritted it out in the second half and won. Up next? Top-ranked Kansas -- a team Olson’s mouth got him in trouble with once before.

You know you too hard for these cats...
I’mma win cause I’m too smart for these cats...

Olson had already put his guard up about the Jayhawks. A year prior in the ’96 NCAA Tourney, Arizona matched up with Kansas and dynamo point guard Jacque Vaughn, emerging talent Paul Pierce and Raef Lafrentz. Asked how he would deal with Vaughn, Olsen responded in kind. “I'd play a zone against them,” Olson told The Baltimore Sun. “Jacque Vaughn is a fine point guard who can't shoot. Jerod Haase is the only one who can pop it from long range on that team.”

He was good on his word: Vaughn didn’t have a great game from the field, only going four-for-10 and 13 points. But he kept feeding Pierce, Haase & B.J. Williams who combined to score 54 of Kansas’ 83 points and led the Jayhawks to the W.

1997 would be different. Kansas had come back reloaded, cruising to the overall No. 1 seed in the tourney and dropped a single game all season. Olson was ready for the rematch against Roy Williams and company.

“You think about Birmingham,” announcer Billy Packer said during the game for CBS. “This is where Ralph Sampson got upset by UAB. Where Rollie Massimino made his run to the Final Four, right here.” He wanted to speak a title into existence for either squad.  He had no words to describe the flurry of three-pointers and heady plays Mike Bibby would make.

If Vaughn was the star guard against Miles Simon, neither of them played better than Bibby. Despite Pierce hoisting up 27 and 11, Bibby would continue to make key basket after key basket. The freshman guard had already been a high school legend in his home state. Every made basket must have felt like renewed confidence within him; if the lyrics of Biggie’s first verse from “Victory” played in his head.

I perform like Mike, anyone — Tyson, Jordan, Jackson…

Silver-haired Lute told it how it was. The rest of the country’s brackets exploded in the “might be.” Arizona had defeated the most talented Kansas squad Roy Williams had, a ghost the now two-time NCAA champion still is haunted by. Three close wins by the Wildcats had them on the precipice of their third ever Final Four. Now they were going up against another strong point guard, one with the sickest handle in the NCAA. A man who many only referred to simply, as God.

Look up a clip of God Shammgod and wonder how in the world NCAA defenders managed to keep up with him. If Randolph Childress owns the most vicious NCAA crossover of all-time, it’s only because Shammgod had done it so often. The Providence guard finished the 1996-97 regular season as the leader in assists per game. In a fight with the Wildcats, he wouldn’t produce everything he wanted on the floor, hitting only seven-of-18 shots. But for all the attention the stud guards of Arizona paid him, they were abused by Ruben Garces & Derrick Brown in the paint. Garces put up 16 points and 19 rebounds against Olson’s boys, who nearly coughed up a Final Four trip in the final seconds. Luckily for them, Simon’s free throw shooting bailed them out.

“Nobody thought that we were going to win,” Simon, who now works at ESPN as a studio analyst told the Huffington Post in 2012. “Everyone thought that we were a year away because we had no seniors.”

Arizona's defense had managed to keep them steady for five games, including a W over No. 1 seed North Carolina in what turned out to be Dean Smith’s final game. Now they needed one more to outdo Villanova’s miracle run of 1985 of defeating two No. 1 seeds en route to a title.

“I told them as long as we've gone this far,” Olson said, “we may as well get it done on Monday as well.”

Business wise, I play men…
Y’all just portray men, we spray men, opposition, competition...
Another day in the life, of the commission...

The night before the 1997 National Championship game, Jason Terry couldn’t sleep. He and Bibby were so amped to play Kentucky on Monday night that in their hotel room, he decided to wear his game uniform to bed. A superstition that still remains in his arsenal now 18 years deep into an NBA career. On the other side, Rick Pitino has his worry as well. His pointed nature still was the same 20 years ago as it is now. Only in this position was he the head coach of the defending national champion. And he wasn’t going to take the situation lightly.

“They've got incredible quickness and speed, and they didn't beat Kansas on a fluke game,” Pitino said in regards to Arizona. “They beat Kansas because they were outstanding against an outstanding ball club.“

Simon Says Championship. (Source: Getty Images Sport)

The events of Monday night only added to the legacies of a few individuals. By now, you’ve come to realize that Kentucky’s Mercer, who had been battling cramping during the National Semi-Final game was held to 13 points. You also know that Simon went to the line by himself (17) as often as Kentucky did as a team. You know that he hoisted up 30 points, that Bibby offset the bad game from Michael Dickerson and current Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner. Lute Olson won his lone national title, denied Kentucky a chance at back-to-back and sent Pitino to Boston. All of it happened.

It didn’t matter how it happened, only that it happened. That the program’s version of Sean Combs, a silver-haired leader named Lute had got them to the mountain top. There in Indianapolis, the monkey of him being one of the greatest college coaches to have never won a title was gone. Legacy secured.

What I’mma do now?
Can y’all hear me out there?
What I’mma do now?

"I still have difficulty believing this happened," Olson told the Los Angeles Times after the game. "It's kind of like a dream.”

Related: Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down: When Antawn Jamison And Vince Carter Fascinated College Basketball Fans

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