Arizona knocked off North Carolina, just as it had No. 1 Kansas eight days earlier, and now the Wildcats are only one more improbable victory from their first NCAA title.
Miles Simon, rejected by North Carolina coach Dean Smith four years ago, scored 24 points and Mike Bibby shook off a horrible start to hit four 3-pointers down the stretch as Arizona defeated Smith’s Tar Heels 66-58 Saturday night.
“As many Final Fours as they’ve been to and as many times you’ve seen them playing on TV in the championship, all the good players that have come through,” Simon said, “I’m glad it’s Arizona’s time now.”
The Wildcats (24-9), winning a game for the first time in three Final Four appearances, will play in Monday’s championship game against Kentucky, a 78-69 semifinal winner over Minnesota.
“They’re not afraid of anyone, and they play that way,” Arizona coach Lute Olson said of his players. “I think the Kansas win gave us a confidence that, hey, if we can beat Kansas, we should be able to beat any of the teams we come up against. I don’t think our guys are walking with a swagger, but … the mindset we have right now is perfect.”
North Carolina (28-7), which had won its previous 16 games, shot 31 percent and committed 17 turnovers. The Tar Heels, who have reached the Final Four 11 times in Smith’s 36 years, won’t get a chance to bring their coach his third title in the same season in which he broke Adolph Rupp’s record for coaching victories.
“We’ve had a great season, but I didn’t tell them that,” Smith said when asked what he told his players afterward. “I said they tried hard but they have to look back at this and learn from each experience.
“Arizona did an excellent job with their interior defense. They are very quick. And we just weren’t shooting well.”
Arizona, which beat Kansas in the Southeast Regional semifinals, was the only team that wasn’t a top seed in its region to reach the Final Four.
Bibby finished with 20 points, including six 3-pointers, for Arizona, which shot 33 percent.
A freshman guard, Bibby missed 10 of his first 13 shots but kept firing.
“My mentality is to shoot the rock,” he said. “I’m not worried. I finally started hitting some. I just knew my shots would fall if I kept taking them.”
Vince Carter had 21 points, but only five on 2-for-7 shooting in the second half, as North Carolina ended its season the same way it began - with a loss to Arizona. The Wildcats beat the Tar Heels 83-72 in the Tipoff Classic on Nov. 22.
Shammond Williams hit a 3-pointer for North Carolina’s first points of the game. But he missed his last seven shots from behind the arc and finished 1 for 13 from the floor.
“I said, ‘Mike, you have got to get to him by the time he gets to the 3-point line,”’ Olson said.
And Bibby listened, helping the team with his defense before putting Arizona over the top with his clutch shooting.
The Wildcats led only 47-42 with 9:50 to play before Bibby and Simon scored all their team’s points during a 14-4 run that made it a 15-point game.
Simon, who still has the rejection letter he received from Smith hanging on his bulletin board, began the stretch with a 3-pointer.
Bibby then hit a 3-pointer to make it 53-42. After two baskets by Serge Zwikker sandwiched Simon’s 15-footer, Bibby hit two more 3-pointers for a 61-46 lead.
North Carolina scored the next seven points, but the cool Bibby made another 3-pointer to put Arizona up 64-55.
The game still wasn’t wrapped up, though, as the Wildcats missed the front ends of three consecutive 1-and-1 free throws while Carter made a dunk and Ed Cota hit a 3-pointer to bring the Tar Heels to within six points.
But Carter, Williams and Cota missed 3-pointers, and Donnell Harris made two clinching free throws with 27.8 seconds left.
Arizona held a 34-31 halftime lead despite shooting 34 percent and committing 12 turnovers thanks mostly to Simon, who had 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting. North Carolina also shot 34 percent and had 10 giveaways.
Arizona 66, North Carolina 58
ARIZONA (24-9) - Davison 1-2 2-4 4, Dickerson 1-10 2-3 5, Bramlett 0-5 2-2 2, Bibby 7-18 0-0 20, Simon 9-19 3-5 24, Edgerson 1-3 0-0 2, Terry 1-6 0-0 3, Harris 2-3 2-2 6. Totals 22-66 11-16 66.
North Carolina (28-7) - Okulaja 1-8 0-0 3, Jamison 7-17 4-4 18, Zwikker 4-12 0-0 8, Williams 1-13 0-0 3, Carter 8-15 4-5 21, Cota 2-9 0-1 5, Ndiaye 0-0 0-0 0, McNairy 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-74 8-10 58.
Halftime-Arizona 34, North Carolina 31. 3-Point goals- Arizona 11-29 (Bibby 6-11, Simon 3-8, Dickerson 1-4, Terry 1-6), North Carolina 4-21 (Okulaja 1-3, Cota 1-3, Carter 1-7, Williams 1-8). Fouled out-None. Rebounds-Arizona 48 (Bramlett 10), North Carolina 52 (Jamison 11). Assists-Arizona 15 (Simon 5), North Carolina 14 (Cota 4). Total fouls-Arizona 13, North Carolina 20. A-47,028.