After the Collapse

A look back at four minutes of pure fan hell that united a basketball-crazy community

Most winning coaches will tell you that they remember their losses far more vividly than their victories. Perhaps it's because they win far more games than they lose, so the relative rareness of the losses causes them to stick out in one's mind.

More likely, it's that no matter how enjoyable and satisfying winning is, losing tends to stir stronger emotions. So it is with University of Arizona men's basketball coach Lute Olson, who is an astonishing 549-164 in his 22 years in Tucson (going into this season).

Despite the fact that his teams win more than three out of every four games they play and that Arizona has the highest winning percentage in the entire country since 1988 (yes, better than Duke or Kentucky or Kansas), it has been the fate of Olson and his many fans that his program is remembered more for the gut-wrenching losses than for the head-turning wins. All the beatdowns of UCLA and Stanford bring a warm smile to a Cat fan's face, but start thinking about the losses, and all of a sudden, you're Dustin Hoffman in the dentist's chair, and Sir Laurence Olivier is standing over you with a drill.

There is UNLV's Anderson Hunt knocking down an uncontested three to knock the No. 1 (in the nation) Cats out of the 1989 NCAAs. Or the ugly shot by USC's Brian Scalabrine that somehow defied the laws of physics to crawl up and over the rim to keep the 1998 Cats from being the only team in history to go 18-0 in Pac-10 play. Or something called Middle Tennessee State ...

All of those losses were sanded down somewhat by what happened at the end of last season: It was the loss for the ages. For those in the Wildcat family--whether they were on the court, the bench, in the stands or watching it on TV--it was the most painful, screeching, life-draining four minutes (on the clock) in anybody's memory. It's a game frozen in time, the agony from which might be eased a bit by a national title or two in the future, but one that will never, ever be forgotten.

It remains to be seen how this year's Wildcat team will respond to that loss (or whether it will have any effect at all), but what is certain is that, for the moment anyway, it is the 900-pound gorilla in the Wildcat Lounge.

It was on March 26 of this year, when the Arizona Wildcats basketball team took on the Illinois Fighting Illini in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Illinois had been ranked No. 1 in the country virtually the entire season, while Arizona had gathered momentum as the season progressed and were playing as well as anybody in the nation.

It was a real Goliath vs. Goliath affair, and it turned out to be one of the great games in NCAA history. Alas, it also had the effect of reinforcing, in a big, ugly way, a negative stereotype about one of the great programs in the history of college basketball.

With 4:04 left in the game, the Wildcats had moved out to a stunning and seemingly insurmountable 75-60 lead. In sports bars all over Tucson, young men were trying to decide what to wear to the riots the following week. And television announcers were doing their best to sound convincing (and convinced) when they said, "It's not over yet."

Arizona had trailed early in the second half, but had slowly and inexorably moved ahead and then had exploded out to the double-digit margin. Sixteen-year-old Nora Gustafson (who plays point guard for the basketball team I coach at Green Fields Country Day School) looked at the clock at the bottom of the screen and allowed herself a slight smile.

"I hadn't been enjoying the game. It was just too nerve-racking. But when I saw that there were only four minutes left, I thought it would be hard for Illinois to come back. And then I noticed the 4:04. I thought it was symbolic. Channing Frye had come to see my team off when we went up to Phoenix for the state tournament. We made it to the Final Four, and I wanted him to do the same."

Sitting in the Allstate Arena just outside of Chicago, Bill Gibson felt uneasy. He was seated with the usual suspects, the wealthy boosters who are able to travel the country on a few days' notice to see their beloved Cats play. Some bristle at the phrase "wealthy boosters," but with the cost of airfare, hotels, ground transportation and insanely inflated ticket prices, you're simply not going to bump into a whole lot of middle-class boosters on these trips.

Gibson owns and operates Complete Landscaping. He works hard during the week and plays a lot of basketball on the weekends. But his passion is the UA basketball program. He has season tickets and travels to all of the postseason games. "I've been a fan of Lute's since he came to town. His teams play hard and they play smart. But when your team is always challenging for the national championship, your expectations are real high, and it's easy to get your feelings hurt."

The place had been raucous much of the day, and why not? The almost-hometown Illini had been perched atop the national polls all year long and were playing in front of thousands of adoring fans, almost all of whom lived within an hour or two of the suburban Chicago arena.

Nearly 20 years earlier, the NCAA had banned the questionable practice of allowing teams to play on their home floors during the men's tournament, considering it to be too great and unfair of an advantage. However, there are rules, and then there are rules. In an effort to boost attendance in early-round games, top-seeded teams are often placed in close proximity to their home. The UA sometimes gets to play in Tempe or Phoenix, while NCAA favorite sons North Carolina and Duke, whose campuses are less than 10 miles apart, are often allowed to play on their rival's court in early rounds, holding to the ban in word but certainly not in spirit. Even then, such games are almost always played in the first two rounds of the tournament, when the nearly-home-court advantage isn't as much of a factor as, say, overwhelming physical and athletic superiority.

But this wasn't a first-round game. This was the NCAA quarterfinals, with the winner reaching the coveted Final Four. Fans from all over the country had sneered at the NCAA when it was announced that even if it reached the championship game, Illinois would never have to travel more than 100 miles or so for any game during the entire tournament.

All that seemed unimportant with 4:04 left in the game. Bill Gibson's ears had been ringing from the noise generated by 17,000 fans in the old building, but when the Cats notched that 15-point margin, things got appreciably quieter.

"People started leaving," Gibson says, "and not just Illinois fans. Certainly, a lot of them were walking out, but so were some Arizona fans. Some said they were going to follow Illinois fans out and ask if they could buy their Final Four tickets for (the following weekend). I guess that wasn't a horrible idea. The Illinois fans probably would've been happy to get rid of the Final Four tickets, and they probably wouldn't have been in a mood to haggle too much over them."

Still, Gibson had this nagging feeling. "I thought to myself, 'This thing isn't over.' I had seen too many basketball games to put this one in the bag. I mean, Arizona had played spectacularly well, but weird things happen."

Miles Simon, the man who, in 1997, led Arizona to its only national championship in men's basketball--and, in the process, pretty much guaranteed that he would never have to pay for another meal or drink in this town again--was sitting in a restaurant on the northside of town with a group of friends and former teammates. The group included Justin Wessel, the tall Iowa kid who went from comic relief to serious baller in his time at the UA; Jesse Mermuys, a gregarious hanger-on with limited basketball skills but the personality to keep just about any party going long after it should have died from natural causes; and John Ash, the Salpointe Catholic kid who was a walk-on in 1997 and hung around long enough to just miss out on bookend title rings when the Cats lost to Duke in the 2001 title game.

Simon knew the Cat players well. He had been working out with them on a daily basis, and the rumor was that he was up for a coaching position if he could complete his degree and if one of Lute's assistants moved on, something that happens with amazing regularity. Most longtime Cat fans adore Simon but feel for him as well. Had Simon left for the NBA after the magical 1997 season, he would've been a millionaire many times over. Instead, he chose to return to school for a shot at back-to-back titles, a dream that ended with a shocking blowout loss to Utah in the quarterfinals. After that, beset by injuries great and minor, he bounced around the underbelly of professional basketball, playing in faraway lands and in American locales best left unnamed.

His pro dream finally abandoned, unrequited, Simon returned to Tucson to plot a life course in another direction. He would eventually get that coaching position, but on March 26, he was just another fan, one forever comfortable in the knowledge of having defied the near-impossible odds in winning a national title himself but one also somewhat burdened by personally knowing the idiosyncrasies and tendencies (not to mention the hopes and the dreams) of the players who were now four minutes from a milestone that could shape their entire lives.

"It's strange," says Simon, "when we won the championship in 1997, everybody made this big deal about (our having finished) fifth in the Pac-10. But we seriously didn't think we could lose. We lost some games that year, but every time we did, we were surprised. When we got into the tournament, we just kept winning one close game after another. We didn't think we were a team of destiny or anything like that. We just thought we were better than everybody else."

John Ash remembers looking at the 15-point lead and thinking that it would be nice to have a couple more baskets. Every ballplayer and coach has a built-in comfort-zone number; for many, it's just past the teens. If Ogden Nash were doing it, it would be "15 is 19, but 20 is plenty."

Ash recalls, "I really thought it was going to be a blowout after that. Arizona was shooting lights out from the free-throw line, and Illinois was going to have to start fouling. I thought Arizona would pull away even further."

On the court, Arizona junior forward Hassan Adams had been playing spectacularly, teaming with the solid-as-a-rock Frye and the enigmatic Salim Stoudamire, a streak shooter with near limitless range. After two lackluster years in the program, the much-heralded Adams had been dismissed by many Cat fans as an underachiever, and far worse, by others as a knucklehead who refused to buy into Olson's tried-and-true system. But late in this season, Adams had corralled his game and was finally putting it to good use. He was proving himself on a national stage and was four minutes on the clock away from becoming a household name.

Twelve seconds later, Illinois hit a three-pointer. The Wildcats responded with two free throws, but then came another Illini three. "Those were big shots," remembers Simon. "If they had missed those, an air of desperation would have settled in. Instead, they were only down 11, and they still had 3 1/2 minutes left."

Inside the Allstate Arena, fans who were almost at the door heard the roar of the suddenly resuscitated crowd and turned back around. It was like the people in The Producers who, having endured the completely tasteless "Springtime for Hitler" musical dance number, are almost clear of the theater when they hear Dick Shawn's first words as a stoner hippie Hitler and turn around, mistakenly thinking that the play is intended as a comedy.

"People started coming back in, and you could just feel the wave of momentum shift in the building," says Gibson. "Illinois fans got fired up, and Arizona fans started thinking 'Oh, no!'"

That's "Oh no!" as in No. 3 seed Arizona bowing to 14-seed Middle Tennessee State in 1992, or No. 2 seed Arizona getting bounced by Steve Nash-led, 15-seed Santa Clara the following year. As in No. 1-in-the-country Arizona taking it in the shorts on a last-second three in the Sweet 16 by UNLV's Anderson Hunt in 1989. Or All-American Steve Kerr going 2-for-13 against Oklahoma in the Cats' first Final Four in 1988.

Longtime fans have a cornucopia of bad memories from which to choose. Some had featured a dreadful Cat offense, while others showcased a porous Cat defense. But none had involved blowing a 15-point lead with four minutes left. That would require an extraordinary effort on the part(s) of one or both teams.

At around the three-minute mark, Adams committed a turnover, and Illinois scored on a putback to cut the margin to nine. Amazingly, a full minute would tick off the clock before anything else of note happened--and then it was a spectacular block by Arizona's freshman sensation, Jawann McClellan. As the clock ticked inside 90 seconds, the Cats had the ball and a nine-point lead.

"I thought they (the Cats) were getting nervous," says Gustafson, "but then I thought it was just me getting nervous and mentally transferring it to them. I still thought they had (weathered the storm) and were going to be OK. There was no way they were going to blow that lead."

At 1:22, Frye threw a bad pass which was converted into a layup by Luther Head. McClellan soon hit one free throw, but Illinois' Deron Williams hit a driving layup to cut it to six with 1:08 left.

"I could feel it slipping away," says Simon. "That's an awful feeling. Just about every player has been in a situation where it's like a nightmare. No matter what you do, the other team seems to be hitting everything, and you can't do anything. It's horrible."

Mustafa Shakur hit two big free throws for the Cats, who would finish the game a stellar 18-for-21 from the line. With 1:03 left, the Cats had regained a semblance of order and led, 80-72. During the lull when the free throws were being shot, the energy in the building dipped somewhat. "No matter how hard they try," says Gibson, "fans can't sustain the intensity. It's hard to explain. They might be as loud, but they're not as intense."

The intensity returned six seconds later, when Head hit another three. Still down five inside a minute, Illinois was forced to foul. They did just that, hammering Shakur at midcourt. The refs (who did not cost Arizona the game) bought into that nonsense that they should somehow ref differently in the last two minutes of the game than they do in the first two minutes and collaborated on an embarrassing no-call. Illinois' Dee Brown hit a layup to make it 80-77. There were 45 seconds left.

By then, urologists all over Southern Arizona were looking at new boats in the catalog, because there was no way any of the hundreds of thousands of people watching this were going to take that much-needed bathroom break before the train wreck had come to a complete halt.

After another Cat turnover, Williams hit a three to tie the game at 80-80 with 39 seconds left.

Sitting in her living room, holding her pre-calculus book that she suddenly visualized going through the TV screen, Nora Gustafson could neither bear to look nor look away. "By this time, I figured that they would lose the game in regulation. At least they wouldn't be cruel enough to go overtime."

Which, of course, they did, but not before twisting the knife a couple more times. After a timeout, the Cats ran the clock down inside 10 seconds. Stoudamire, who had won the previous game over Oklahoma State two days earlier with a chilling 15-footer with five seconds left, drove to the hoop but was forced to pass it. McClellan took the pass and fired a wild shot. The rebound caromed to Stoudamire, whose long shot attempt was blocked. The ball then bounced to Adams, whose hurried shot at the buzzer fell short.

"There was no way they were going to win the game in overtime," says Gibson. "It was like a funeral in the Arizona section. The rollercoaster ride of emotions was really draining. I was almost hoping that it wouldn't be close so that the flight home wouldn't be full of what-ifs."

Arizona almost obliged him, falling behind by six before rallying back to cut it to one. They even had the ball for the last shot, but the planned play fell apart, and Adams' off-balance shot at the buzzer clanged off the board and side of the rim, sending the arena into a riotous celebration.

All over Tucson, fans quietly staggered out of sports bars in a daze, too disciplined to light cars on fire over anything other than a loss in the final game.

Gustafson, taking a cue from the aversion-therapy scene in Clockwork Orange, will forever associate the awful feeling with the task that was before her at the time and may foreswear math or homework or both.

Miles Simon immediately felt badly for Frye and Stoudamire. "No matter how many games those guys play in the pros, their last college game will have ended like a nightmare. There's no getting around that."

Eight months have passed since that game, and a new Wildcats basketball season is upon us. Even without Frye and Stoudamire, now playing in the NBA for New York and Atlanta, respectively, the Cats are ranked as high as No. 6 in the nation and are again favored by many to win the Pac-10 title. It remains to be seen what impact, if any, the Illinois game will have on this season.

The fans have returned, as they always do. Bill Gibson says he can't get that game out of his mind. He says that the only good thing about it is that he'll always have a real quick answer when anybody asks him to name the most painful loss he's ever witnessed. He says he'll probably remember it on an equal level with the '97 championship.

Miles Simon quotes the coaches' party line when he says that he doesn't think the game will have any lasting impact on this season or the program, in general. "I don't think the guys think about it all that much. We don't talk about it. It's in the past."

Hassan Adams initially concurs, saying, "I don't think about it a lot, almost never really. It was just a game. We learned from our mistakes, so now this year, we know what to do." But then he turns around and adds, "It definitely gives me a lot of motivation."

All of the adults agree that another national championship would be nice. Meanwhile, Nora says, "I was only 8 when they won (the national title). I'd like them to win a national championship so I could have a good game to remember."

To go along with the one that everyone would like to forget.

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