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This Day In Sports: Lute lights the championship lamp at Arizona

1997: It’s been a quarter century since a team from the West won the national championship in men’s basketball.
Credit: Rene Macura/AP File Photo
Jay Leno shares a laugh with Arizona head coach Lute Olson on the Tonight Show the night after the Wildcats won the NCAA championship over Kentucky, April 1, 1997.

BOISE, Idaho — THIS DAY IN SPORTS…March 31, 1997, 25 years ago today:

Without scoring a basket in overtime, Arizona wins its first national championship with an 84-79 win over Kentucky at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. The UA version of the Wildcats set an NCAA title game record by making 34 free throws, 14 of them from MVP Miles Simon. The ‘Cats also became the first team to knock off three no. 1 seeds on their way to a title, beating Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky—the three winningest programs in college basketball history.

It was the crown jewel moment of coach Lute Olson’s basketball life. Olson was in the middle of a 25-year run with the Wildcats—and a 35-year Hall of Fame coaching career overall. He came to Tucson looking for a change after a successful nine-year stint at Iowa, and it worked out well. Hard to fathom, but Arizona was coming off a four-win season and just one victory in Pac-10 play in 1983. Olson ended up winning Pac-10 Coach of the Year honors seven times while leading the Wildcats to 23 NCAA Tournament berths and five Final Fours. He retired in 2008.

Arizona has remained in the spotlight since, for better or for worse. The Olson era was not free of NCAA sanctions, but those 25 seasons are remembered fondly now compared to the days of Sean Miller, who replaced Olson. Miller’s controversies reached a peak in 2017, when federal prosecutors announced bribery, soliciting a bribe and wire fraud charges against a UA assistant coach. Miller vehemently denied his involvement in the scandal, but the damage was done. Still, Miller wasn’t fired until a year ago, at the end of his 12th season. Arizona, which has not made a Final Four since 2001, was a No. 1 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament but was eliminated in a 72-60 Sweet 16 loss to Houston last week.

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra. He also anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK and one on News/Talk KBOI. His Scott Slant column runs every Wednesday.)

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