How a Road Trip to Tulsa Turned into an Unforgettable Experience (Part 1)

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How a Road Trip to Tulsa Turned into an Unforgettable Experience (Part 1)

Through a trip to Tulsa, I went from never seeing Derrick Williams play in-person, to having met him, while watching the future NBA lottery pick lead Arizona to a remarkable Sweet 16 run.

Through a trip to Tulsa, I got to talk to the beat writer of the Wildcats, a man who holds the job that I have always dreamed of having after I graduate from college.

Through a trip to Tulsa, I befriended an elderly couple who know more about the Wildcats than myself, much to my disappointment as I thought I was the most knowledgeable Arizona fan out there.

Through a trip to Tulsa, I witnessed the same team that I had watched on television so many times but never had actually seen play with my own two eyes or win a pair of down to the wire games in order to advance to the Sweet 16.

Through a trip to Tulsa, I learned what March Madness is all about.

 

March 13, Selection Sunday:

I anxiously await the NCAA tournament seedings. The latest projected brackets have Arizona anywhere between a No. 5 and No. 8 seed. I'm hoping they are closer to a No. 5 seed but it is really all about who they are matched up against, not the seed itself.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Around 5:20 Central Time, the West region seedings are revealed. Arizona ends up with a rather generous No. 5 seed but the time in between Greg Gumbel's reading of the No. 5 and No. 12 seed seems to last hours.

Finally, Gumbel says that the Wildcats will be facing the Memphis Tigers.

My attention instantly turns toward the obvious connection between the two schools. Memphis' head coach is Josh Pastner, who was on Arizona's 1997 National Championship team and then served as an assistant under Lute Olson.

Although NCAA Selection Committee Chair Eugene Smith later said that he was unaware of the connection between Memphis and Arizona, it seemed hard to believe at the time.

After I get past how ironic it is that Pastner's first NCAA tournament game as a head coach will be against his alma mater, I then focus on how I will convince my dad to take me on a road trip to Tulsa, Okla.

Fortunately, he is right on board with the idea of seeing the Cats play in a reasonably close destination and quickly looks up hotel reservations. My mom understands how important going on this trip is for me so she puts up no protest.

I spend the rest of Sunday listening to Dick Vitale and Jay Billas complain that schools like Virginia Tech should have gotten in over a team like VCU. In hindsight, maybe they wouldn't have said all those things if they knew that VCU would beat both Georgetown and Purdue by double digits while the Hokies couldn't even beat Wichita State in the NIT.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

 

March 17th, First day of Second Round

While I ride home from school (spring break lasts from March 18th until March 28th), I watch the ending of the Morehead State vs. Louisville game from my iPhone. The quality isn't very good, but I can at least make out who is wearing what uniforms.

I picked Louisville in eight of my 10 brackets on ESPN.com, so I am not thrilled when Morehead State's Demonte Harper nails a game-winning three-pointer.

Shortly after, Temple knocks off Penn State while Kentucky barely escapes Princeton.

That evening, I make sure to pack everything I might need for the trip. I'm not sure how long we will be staying in Tulsa, but just in case the trip lasts until Monday rather than Saturday, I pack a couple extra T-shirts.

 

March 18th, Second Day of Second Round

My dad and I wake up at 5:30 a.m. so we can get out of St. Louis before rush hour traffic picks up. I sleep in the car for a few hours, and when I wake up, I am extremely agitated to know that we still have four more hours to drive.

When we finally arrive in Tulsa, the Texas vs. Oakland game has already started, and by the time we enter the heavily burnt orange colored arena, the game is nearly at halftime.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

My first impressions of Texas is that they do a good job on defense and that Tristan Thompson could give Arizona fits inside if the two schools play each other in the next round.

The Longhorns take control of the game in the second half and although Oakland makes a run in the closing minutes, there is no doubt that Texas is the better team.

Minutes after the conclusion of the Longhorns' win, the Arizona and Memphis players take the court for a shootaround. This is the first time I have personally seen the Wildcats play all year and the size of Derrick Williams pops out at me.

The 6'8" power forward is considered by many to be a top five NBA draft pick and there is good reason behind that. He is one of the most efficient scorers in the game and averages nearly twice as many points per shot attempt as BYU's Jimmer Fredette or UConn's Kemba Walker.

At the time, his greatest moment of the season had been against Washington, when he blocked a potential game-tying shot in the final seconds. Arizona went on to win that game along with the entire Pac-10 regular season title.

In the Pac-10 Tournament however, Arizona lost to the same Washington team after they gave up a multiple possession lead in the closing seconds of regulation before losing on an Isaiah Thomas game-winner in overtime. Both those situations, the block and the blown lead, would reappear in this game.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

On the other side of the court are the young Memphis Tigers. Thanks to a top five recruiting class signed by second-year head coach Josh Pastner, the Memphis program has experienced a complete makeover following John Caliapri's departure.

The team is led by freshmen guards Will Barton and Joe Jackson. They were both highly touted recruits coming out of high school, and although they haven't quite lived up to their hype, they took these Tigers to an NCAA tournament a year earlier than some expected.

Memphis is quick but lacks size, and that could cost them in today's matchup against the Wildcats, which features five guys that are at least 6'7".

At around 1:50 Tulsa time, the game tips off. Memphis starts off hot and at one point has a double-digit lead. But once Williams begins to take over, Arizona grabs the lead and goes into halftime winning by three points.

Meanwhile, I am becoming best friends with a 65-plus-year-old lady named Molly Hambacher. She is at the game with her husband Jim, and as I soon learned, she was a bigger Wildcat fan than myself, and that is really saying something.

After all, how many teenagers' most cherished item is a picture of the 2003-2004 Arizona team signed by Lute Olson?

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

As it turns out, the Hambachers are huge supporters of Arizona athletics, both as fans and as boosters. A quick Google search shows that one of their donations helped the softball team pay for a padded outfield wall and that there is a scholarship named after them.

They have season tickets to basketball, football, volleyball and of course softball. For those who don't know, Arizona has perhaps the most storied softball program in the country as the school has produced Olympians like Jennie Finch, and the Wildcats' head coach is Mike Candrea, the man who led the USA softball team to gold medals in three of the past four Olympics.

When it comes to basketball, Molly might know more about the program than anyone else. She could probably name every Wildcat that played under Lute Olson, largely because she was friends with many of the players' parents.

There weren't many Arizona fans who made the trip, but the ones that did are as passionate of fans as you will ever meet. One woman survived cancer three times and can barely walk up the arena's steps, yet she had to see her beloved Wildcats play.

In the second half of the game, the teams trade leads multiple times, and with eight minutes to go, it is apparent it will go right down to the end.

When Arizona takes a 75-70 lead 24 seconds remaining, I let myself believe that the Wildcats will win this game without needing any final second heroic plays.

Then Memphis scores the next four points, and it's not long before the sweat starts dripping down my face.

With eight seconds left, Momo Jones gets fouled and then knocks down two clutch free throws to push the lead back up to three points.

When Arizona head coach Sean Miller was at Xavier, he lost a game in the NCAA Tournament because he didn't foul in the closing seconds and allowed the other team to tie it in regulation, before winning in overtime. He later said that he would never lose a game the way again.

So after Memphis in-bounds the ball, Jones quickly fouls Joe Jackson, sending him to the free throw line. Jackson makes the first free throw, pushing the Arizona lead down to only two points.

He then misses the second shot on purpose, in hopes that one of his teammates will rebound the ball and score a game-tying basket.

Sure enough, the Tigers' Wesley Witherspoon gets the offensive rebound but as he puts up his shot, Derrick Williams comes out of no where to reject it. Memphis fans want a foul, Arizona fans just want the game to be over.

With a half second remaining, Jamelle Horne misses both free throws, and the second miss effectively ends the game.

I high five everyone around me and then hug Molly, who is still a bit startled about everything that just took place.

After seeing Arizona lose so many heartbreaking finishes, it is nice to see them finally on the winning side. The victory also means I will be staying in Tulsa two extra days.

Little did I know at the time, that those next two days would supply me with memories that I will almost certainly remember for the rest of my life.

This is the first half of a two part piece on my once in a lifetime trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma. The second half of the story will be posted shortly.

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