Self-doubt was never an option, self-pity never a possibility. Fearless and peerless, Arizona simply used overtime to show why it deserved to preside over all of college basketball.
When the Wildcats came out of the huddle at the start of OT, having blown a four-point lead with less than a minute left in regulation, "it was still our game to win," Arizona captain Miles Simon said.And so, they won.
Displaying the resiliency that became its trademark in the NCAA tournament, Arizona opened overtime with a 10-2 run and finished off defending champion Kentucky 84-79 Monday night for its first national title.
Arizona (25-9) reached the Final Four after finishing fifth in the Pac-10 and getting the fourth seed in the Southeast Regional. Kentucky (35-5) was trying to join Duke as the only repeat champions since UCLA's stretch of seven straight titles ended in 1973.
In its six tournament games, Arizona either needed to come from well behind to win or needed to pull out a game after losing a late lead.
Along the way, Arizona became the first team in tournament history to knock off three No. 1 seeds - Kansas, North Carolina and now Kentucky, three programs that have won more games than any schools in college basketball history.
"They've gone through three number one seeds," Arizona coach Lute Olson said, "and in every one of those cases, that was the point: `Are we tough enough? Can we be the ones that run other people out of gas? Can we get the tough rebound down the stretch, even though you're exhausted?' And I think they answered that for everybody tonight."
With freshman point guard Mike Bibby starting alongside three juniors and a sophomore, next season was supposed to be Arizona's time to shine. That everything happened more quickly than even Olson thought possible just made his team's accomplishments more remarkable.
"This team, there's no fluke," Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said of Arizona. "They're a great team who got better and better."
Arizona won the first overtime championship game of the 1990s by repeatedly burning Kentucky's vaunted fullcourt press, by holding All-American forward Ron Mercer to nine shots, by going 34-of-41 from the free-throw line, and by getting a career-high 30 points from Simon.
"Miles Simon's toughness is unbelievable," said Olson, who finally won a title in his fourth Final Four appearance after coaching Arizona to the decade's best record. "Miles' understanding of the game is beyond anything that you can teach. He just has a feel for it."
Simon, who missed the season's first 11 games due to academic ineligibility, was named the Final Four MVP. He was 14-of-17 from the free-throw line, including 4-of-4 in overtime. Some of the foul shots came after he and Bibby broke Kentucky's press; others came after he took charge when Arizona's offense broke down.
"Miles was in a zone," teammate Michael Dickerson said. "He kept saying, `They can't stop me! They can't stop me!' And he had 30 points, so they obviously couldn't stop him. And we kept giving him the ball."
Dickerson, Arizona's top scorer this season, was held to five points for the second consecutive game. But he helped shut down Mercer.
Dickerson, Simon and Jason Terry took turns making life miserable for the NBA-bound sophomore, who had 13 points and committed five turnovers.
"I haven't been played like that all year," said Mercer, who had 20 points against Syracuse in the 1996 title game and was one of Kentucky's few returning players. "They made it very tough. Every time I curled around, they had somebody waiting for me."
Mercer went through long stretches without even touching the ball, but he did make a long, off-balance 3-pointer with 51 seconds left in regulation that cut Arizona's lead to 72-71. After Bibby made two free throws, Anthony Epps hit a 3-pointer with 12.1 seconds left to send it into overtime at 74-74.
But Arizona took command in OT, scoring all 10 of its points on free throws after beating the press that had helped Kentucky win its previous 11 NCAA tournament games.
"If I had my druthers . . . I wouldn't have pressed at all," Pitino said. "I did not want to press much because I felt that pressing wasn't the way to go."
Said Scott Padgett, who led Kentucky with 17 points: "They did a great job of handling our pressure. Before the game, they said they could do it . . . and they went out there and kept their cool."
Nobody was cooler than Simon and Bibby.
"We've been working on the press since day one," Bibby said. "I think the greatest competition is what we see every day in practice. And our team is just so quick out there."
Bibby, whose father, Henry, won three titles playing for UCLA in the early-1970s, capped a wonderful tournament with 19 points, nine rebounds and four assists.
The scary thing for the rest of the country is that Arizona's top eight players will be back, unless one or more move on to the NBA. North Carolina coach Dean Smith already has predicted that Arizona will be in the 1998 title game.
"Next season, I'd hate to play them," Epps said. "They're going to be great. They're already great. I don't think they'll let the national title get to their heads. They're pretty down-to-earth. They're obviously the team to beat."