For most teams, Kentucky’s pressure defense is 94 feet of misery, hands swiping at the ball all over the court, making the trip from one end to the other an awful adventure.
For Arizona’s Miles Simon, it was an opportunity, a chance to convert the Wildcats’ quickness into a national championship.
“We were able to break it and break it,” Simon said after Arizona’s 84-79 overtime victory Monday night. “Eventually, running 94 feet the whole game, they got tired.”
When the Kentucky players did, they fouled. And when they fouled Simon, he simply converted the free throws. He finished with 30 points, and 14 of 17 from the foul line.
Simon, named the most outstanding player in the Final Four, played smart, tough ball all night long.
“The perimeter was open all night,” said Simon, a junior. “It was a matter of not going to the hoop but pulling up for the short jumper.”
Simon is not Superman. The Kentucky press took its toll on him.
“They wore me down. I was very tired. I called for subs three times.”
But when the game and the title were up for grabs, he wasn’t leaving.
“I had to suck it up,” he said. “I was getting the ball in the right spot, trying to create shots and get to the foul line.”
He succeeded over and over. His 14 free throws and 17 attempts were second-most in both categories for a title game.
Certainly, Kentucky was impressed.
“He was an extraordinary basketball player who has a lot of fakes and a lot of moves,” Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said.
“He went out and did the little things you need to win,” Kentucky All-American Ron Mercer said. “He did every facet of the game.”
That’s the way he plays it.
Simon refused to let Kentucky’s reputation for defensive disruption shake his confidence. Rather, he converted its intensity into an advantage for Arizona.
This was Simon at his best, setting the pace, making the big plays and big shots. This was the way it was supposed to be. This was the way other guards did it in the half-dozen Final Fours his father had taken him to watch since 1984. This was the way he would do it to Kentucky.
Coming out of high school, Simon was turned down by North Carolina, where he wanted to play. There was no room for a shooting guard at Chapel Hill, but there was space at Tucson. So Simon pinned the rejection letter on his wall and then blistered the Tar Heels in the NCAA Tournament semifinals.
Now favored Kentucky, the defending champion, was on deck. Simon was ready.
“He’s our leader,” freshman Mike Bibby said. “He helps everybody out there. He’s been there before. And everybody just listens to him. He knows what he’s doing out there.”
Simon likes that role.
“I’ve been looked on as a leader since my freshman year in high school,” he said. “I like to direct players and be a second coach out there.”
At the end, he held the game ball, another trophy to place next to North Carolina’s letter of rejection.
“I just knelt down on the ball,” he said. “It was such a war. This was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever done.”
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