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Arizona basketball game rewind: Re-watching the 1988 Regional Final Against North Carolina

We already covered a loss, so let's move onto something sweeter: Arizona's 1988 Regional Final victory over UNC.

Mike Powell/Getty Images

In our first installment of Arizona basketball game rewind, we covered Arizona's 1994 Final Four loss to Arkansas. Now that we got a tough loss out of the way, we will take a look at one of the biggest wins in Arizona's history: the 1988 Regional Final win against North Carolina.

Going into the game, Arizona was one of the best teams in the country, having only lost two games all year. Still, Arizona hadn't made a Final Four (the closest they came was a 1976 Elite Eight under Fred Snowden) and the Pac-10 hadn't sent a team to the Final Four since UCLA in 1980. Arizona, then, still had something to prove, and fortunately, they pulled it out and helped build the foundation of one of the most successful basketball programs in the country.

The Game

This one's not in the NCAA Vault, but it's still available on YouTube without commercials:

Best Parts of the Game

1. Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr played well, but Tom Tolbert played the best.

Arizona's key players all played well. Sean Elliott put up 24 points in a James Harden-esque performance, getting to the line 14 times and putting on a pump-fake clinic. Steve Kerr, meanwhile, scored 14 points on 4 shots, which seems pretty good.

Tom Tolbert, though, outshined both of them. Tolbert scored 21 points, 18 of those coming in the second half, and dominated the paint for Arizona. He led Arizona's second half charge that put UNC away for good. And he made the play of the game. With about fifteen minutes left in the game, UNC led 42 - 40. Tolbert cut underneath the hoop, caught the ball, pump faked, drew a foul on J.R. Reid, and tossed the ball upward, somehow making the basket:


That play was huge. It was the third foul on J.R. Reid (UNC's best player) and it started Arizona's second half charge to seize control of the game. Without Tolbert, I don't know if Arizona manages to win this game.

2. J.R. Reid was shut down.

UNC's star player in 1988 was J.R. Reid. Reid was one of the top recruits in the country coming into college and lived up to those high expectations. He was a consensus first-team All-American in 1988, averaging 18 points per game in the regular season and 22 points per game in the tournament prior to facing Arizona.

Arizona, though, shut him down. Anthony Cook had a very bad game on offense, but made up for it on the defensive end, providing the primary interior defense against Reid. Reid managed only 10 points against Arizona, and without that scoring, UNC couldn't keep up.

3. Brent Musberger said that Lute Olson has accomplished more in the desert "than anyone since Rommel."

Do you know who Erwin Rommel is? I didn't. He was a general who led German and Italian forces during the conquest of Northern African in World War II. He was nicknamed the "Desert Fox" for his fighting prowess in the desert. He eventually was forced to commit suicide for participating in a plot to kill Hitler.

I appreciate random history references during my basketball games, so I approve of this line.

Not So Great Parts of the Game

1. Forty-five second shot clock is awful.

The 35-second shot clock was maddening. The 45-second shot clock is worse. While Arizona lit it up in the second half, the game was slow and low-scoring early, with only 54 combined points in the first half. Watching basketball played that slowly gives me Wisconsin flashbacks.

2. The first half did not go well.

Though Arizona eventually pulled away and won the game in the second half, the first half was rocky. Arizona had a lot of trouble scoring the ball, putting up only 26 points. Steve Kerr even missed a free throw, so you know things weren't going Arizona's way. Fortunately, Arizona fought through and lit it up in the second half.

3. As far as UNC teams go, this one wasn't very star-studded.

North Carolina has a long and storied history with scores of very talented players who went on to great success at the next level. This wasn't one of those teams. This UNC team had talent -- Scott Williams, J.R. Reid, and Rick Fox all were very good college players -- but they were very young, with Williams seeing his first major minutes as a sophomore and Fox playing only sparingly as a freshman. I expected to see more developed talent on this UNC team, and it just wasn't there.

What happened?

At the half, UNC led by two and Arizona seemed out of sorts. Those problems subsided in the second half, and Arizona pulled ahead 51 - 46 with ten minutes to go. It got uglier from there as the Arizona lead continued to increase. Arizona eventually won 70 - 52 with a dominating second half performance.

GIF that best sums up the game

The last ten seconds of the game was a microcosm for how the game went for both teams.

First, UNC:


Second, Arizona:


I'll take the team that gets a dunk when they're up 16 with two seconds left over the team that gets a jump shot blocked followed by an air ball.

What did it mean for the program?

This was the biggest game for the Wildcats program. It led to the first Final Four in Arizona history. It proved that Arizona could succeed at the national level. And did I mention that it led to the first Final Four in Arizona history? The importance of that milestone can't be overstated.

What game should we cover next?

I really appreciate everyone who has suggested games to cover. Hopefully through the summer we'll make it through most (if not all) of the suggestions.

I want to mention one game in particular. Mike Paulus sent me a VHS copy of a 1985/1986 game between Arizona and UCLA:

VHS of UCLA/Arizona

That's pretty awesome. I think it says a lot about Arizona fans that someone is willing to dig through their attic and send me a VHS copy of a game that is older than I am. So I want to thank Mike for passing that along, and hopefully we'll be able to cover it here (assuming I can find a cheap VCR on Craigslist).

Just like last time, let me know if you have any suggestions for interesting games to cover. In particular, someone mentioned the infamous New Mexico/Arizona game at The Pit after which Lute vowed never to play at UNM ever again. If you have a copy of this game, please comment or send me a message on Twitter. I really want to find out if the UNM clock operator actually did cheat us out of that win.

It's going to be hard to top the 1988 Regional Final in terms of sheer importance -- it really was a program-defining win -- but Arizona has plenty of other great games to cover, and we'll try to hit as many as we can as the summer progresses.