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If He Hadn’t Passed, They Had No Shot

He was born in Stockholm, but the town he calls home is Fullerton. He is baseball player Darryl Strawberry’s brother-in-law. He won four varsity letters for his high school, Mater Dei . . . in tennis. He once made a 65-foot shot to win a college basketball game on national TV.

But this, said Miles Simon, after scoring 30 points Monday night in Arizona’s 84-79 overtime victory over Kentucky for the national championship, “This is the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever done.”

As recently as January, if he hadn’t crammed until 1:30 in the morning for an exam in Family Studies 401 and passed the test, Miles Simon wouldn’t have even been on Arizona’s team. He sat out this season’s first 11 games, academically ineligible. His coach, Lute Olson, looks back on this period of his life as “Miles’ decision to take a little vacation.”

Just think of what Miles would have missed, had he not passed that class. He would have missed a wild game between two packs of Wildcats, during which 47,028 fans at the RCA Dome got to see Simon dip, scoop and score and make more free throws than the entire Kentucky team. He would have missed becoming the top scorer in the entire 1997 NCAA tournament, with 132 points in six games.

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Most of all, Miles would have missed becoming the prince of Indianapolis, wearing a championship net as a necklace.

“I think we just wanted it more” than the other Wildcats did, Simon said, no disrespect intended.

He knows how strong Kentucky is. He knows how rare it is that a team wins 35 games without winning a championship. He knows that his own Arizona team was defeated nine times--seven of those losses (including two to UCLA) coming after Simon had rejoined the team.

Yet it is equally rare that any team heats up the way Arizona did, knocking off one favored opponent after another. By the end, Simon and Mike Bibby and Donnell Harris and Bennett Davison and Jason Terry and the rest of the underdog ‘Cats didn’t even flinch at the fact that 30,000 or more of those in the dome were probably pulling for the top-dog ‘Cats, college basketball’s defending champions.

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Simon let nothing stop him. He overcame the ice-cold shooting of teammate Michael Dickerson, a pure shooter who spent the Final Four in a pure two-for-18 funk. Nor did he give up after center A.J. Bramlett fouled out with a measly three points. Simon took control of this title game as few players have.

“Miles understands the game better than you can teach it to him,” marveled his coach, Olson, who has been around for 24 seasons and finally has his first national champion. “He just has a feel for the game of basketball. I don’t know how else to explain it. Miles just has something others don’t.”

Very few players in history have scored 30 in an NCAA title game. Lew Alcindor did it twice. Bill Walton went for 44. But only three individuals since 1978--Danny Manning (31), Glen Rice (31) and Ed O’Bannon (30)--have done what Simon did here Monday. And those guys had reputations as scorers. Simon never scored 30 in his life until the regional final against Providence.

Oh, sure, his high school coach, Gary McKnight, knew that Simon could score after watching him ring up 22 a night for Mater Dei as a senior. But would he have guessed that Miles would someday be MVP of the NCAA Final Four?

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What a game he had. Rick Pitino, the Kentucky coach, said of Simon, “He just went out and did every facet of the game.”

It was a game that was tied at 2-2, 8-8, 11-11, 20-20, 28-28, 44-44, 50-50, 59-59, 74-all after regulation, and Simon never lost his cool. He played 40 minutes, more than any player except Kentucky’s Ron Mercer. In all that time, Simon committed only three turnovers, while handling the ball constantly.

One of those turnovers was a traveling violation with 7 1/2 minutes remaining that appeared on TV replays to be a blown call by the official. Simon thought so himself, waving his arms and mouthing the word: “No, no, no, no, no.”

Olson gave him a brief rest for the next couple of minutes. With 1:50 left in regulation, Simon made one of his patented moves in the paint, giving Arizona the lead, 69-68.

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“He has fakes,” Pitino said. “He’s a wonderful, wonderful player.”

Kentucky fought hard to force an overtime, but that was Simon time. The other Wildcats were exhausted--"Their legs were dragging,” Simon observed--while the 6-5 guard who is Arizona’s team captain as a junior looked as though he could run all the way to Fullerton and back, even though he was dragging himself.

“I don’t know, I just gave it my all,” Simon said. “In the first half, I was very tired. I called for a sub, I’d say three times. But in the second half, I just had to suck it up. It was just a war out there.”

His younger backcourt partner, Bibby, was impressive himself. But it was Simon he wanted to talk about.

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Bibby said, “That’s the best game I’ve seen him play yet. He’s been carrying us on his shoulders and he came through for all of us again.”

For the second time this school year, Miles Simon passed family studies.


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