If at any point during, immediately after—or frankly any time since—Arizona’s overtime win over TCU, the phrase “that was an all-timer” crossed your mind or your lips, you’re not alone. Because it was.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be around the UA men’s basketball program, in some capacity, for the past 28 years, and it’s hard to think of many games more exciting and incredible than the one I just covered at Viejas Arena in San Diego. Yours truly drove back to Tucson afterward, a 6-hour trip that provided ample time for myself and riding partner Steve Rivera—who has covered the Wildcats since 1990—ample time to reflect on what we just witnessed.
But we’d barely gotten into the mountains east of San Diego before agreeing that the overtime victory over the Horned Frogs, sending Arizona to its 20th Sweet 16 and first since 2017, was one of the greatest games in program history.
That was Arizona’s seventh NCAA Tournament overtime game, the first since the crushing Elite Eight loss to Wisconsin in 2014. Before that was an even more painful one, the 2005 Elite Eight collapse against Illinois.
The Wildcats hadn’t won an overtime game in the NCAA tourney since 2003, when it survived against Gonzaga in 2 OTs in the second round. And like against TCU, that was when Arizona was a No. 1 seed.
Baylor’s loss to UNC and Arizona’s win over TCU were just the sixth and seventh overtime games by number-one seeds in the second round of the #NCAATournament.— Elias Sports Bureau (@EliasSports) March 21, 2022
It was the second for the Wildcats, who needed two OTs to beat Gonzaga in 2003. #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/qv33MzzUtW
So, what defines a game being “great,” and how do you rank them? That’s all a matter of personal opinion, but for me it’s a combination of drama and stakes. Simply put: the more uncertainty about whether Arizona would come out on top, along with when and where the game happened, are the most important factors.
That doesn’t mean the 1997 NCAA title game win over Kentucky—which also went to OT—is automatically No. 1, though. If you think about it, getting to the championship for the first time in program history was already a momentous occasion, so winning it was just gravy. Just like in 1988 when the UA made its first of four Final Four appearances, the more memorable game was beating North Carolina in the Elite Eight.
During the 1997 run, the game was the Sweet 16 win over Kansas, the first of three No. 1 seeds the Wildcats knocked off on the way to the title (something no one else had done, or has since done). The Jayhawks were 34-1, overwhelming favorites to win it all and sporting a roster that included six future NBA players. And, oddly enough, future Stanford coach Jerod Haase, but I digress.
That game saw the UA lead by 10 late, only for Kansas to storm back and get as close as one but never retake the lead in what was an 85-82 victory for the Wildcats.
Against TCU on Sunday, Arizona did give up the lead late, allowing a 12-0 run that put the Horned Frogs up three with less than four minutes to go. The Wildcats tied it twice after that, and had a chance to win had Dalen Terry had just a fraction of a second longer to finish what might have been the greatest game-ending dunk in the NCAA tourney since Lorenzo Charles’ putback slam for North Carolina State against Houston in the 1983 final.
Why would a win in the second round of a six-round tournament qualify as one of the greatest in school history? Well, consider where this program was a year ago, and where it is now.
Last March the UA was sitting on the sidelines, having banned itself from the NCAA tourney. It was a few weeks away from officially wiping its hands of Sean Miller and trying to start fresh, which it did in the form of Tommy Lloyd. The hire drew mixed results—we wanted the Gonzaga head coach, not his assistant!, was a common refrain—and thus the expectations for 2021-22 were understandably tempered.
Arizona received a whopping 26 votes in the preseason Associated Press poll, but by the third week of the season it was ranked, after winning at Illinois in early December it was in the Top 10 and when the regular season ended it was the first team in Pac-12 history to win 18 conference games.
Such an unprecedented climb from anonymity to celebrity couldn’t end so soon, could it? But it almost did. Had a foul been called when Terry and Christian Koloko smothered TCU’s Mike Miles Jr. in the final seconds of regulation, and he’d made one of both of the foul shots, would Bennedict Mathurin have been able to hit another clutch shot like his tying 3-pointer with 11.5 seconds left?
Thankfully, we didn’t have to find out.
Surviving Sunday night was huge for Arizona’s program, which is back to the national relevance it reached under Lute Olson and maintained for most of Miller’s tenure (after he also had to pick up the pieces, breaking through in his second year with a run to the Elite Eight). Losing to TCU would have been considered a huge letdown for a lot of fans who allowed themselves to get reinvested, and no doubt that will be the reaction of many if/when the UA loses in this tourney.
But that it gets to keep playing—and maybe add to the “greatest games” list along the way—is what really matters.
Where do you think Sunday’s game ranks in Arizona men’s basketball history? And what do you think is the greatest game the Wildcats have ever played? Give your thoughts in the comments!