During any Arizona game, you can fasten your eyes on the Gumbies, the Wildcats' hyperkinetic bench warmers, and keep a play-by-play from what you see. Coach Lute Olson's scrubs have choreography for every occasion. The Three-Point Shuffle follows a Steve Kerr bomb. The What Can You Do?—a smug shoulder shrug and look of mock astonishment—acknowledges every smooth Sean Elliott move. A Wildcat basket-and-foul call merits the And One, a 360-degree rotation of the right arm, refereelike.
Yet even the Gumbies weren't prepared Sunday for what happened early in the second half of the West Regional final in Seattle's Kingdome. The Wildcats were trailing North Carolina 42-40 when Arizona center Tom Tolbert found himself with the ball in traffic, guarded by 6'9" Tar Heel strongman J.R. Reid. Tolbert is a sort of Dave Cowens of the desert, a plucky 6'7" center with sound instincts around the hoop and a sweet medium-range jump shot.
But here was Reid crashing upon him while Tolbert flipped the ball blindly over his shoulder with his right hand, off the glass and somehow, as the official's whistle sounded, through the basket. Surely this called for an And One. But the Gumbies had lost all discipline. "It was, like, pandemonium," said Gumby Harvey Mason. "Our bodily functions went completely AWOL."
The Heels would soon put out an APB for their own functions. Tolbert's shot began a 15-4 tear that led to a 70-52 Wildcat victory. In response to a spate of Gumby-bashing by CBS's Brent Musburger during Arizona's 99-79 semifinal drubbing of Iowa—"[Musburger] said that Coach Olson needed to have a talk with us." said Mason, "when, really, Coach Olson needed to have a talk with him"—the Gumbies had replaced the What Can You Do? with the more dignified Ell-i-ott Salaam, a worshipful bow in the direction of their main man. So during the Cats' decisive run on Sunday, the Gumbies performed, in order: pandemonium, one Kerr Three-Point Shuffle, two improvised dances in honor of some more nifty short stuff from Tolbert, and two Ell-i-ott Salaams.
The Heels scored only 10 points over the final 14½ minutes as Olson used a man-to-man exclusively in the second half and challenged his team to keep Carolina off the offensive glass. The Heels had had their way on the offensive boards in their 78-69 semifinal defeat of Michigan, but in the second half against the Cats, it was one-and-done for Carolina. "We did better against them than anybody else in the tournament did," said Tar Heel coach Dean Smith ruefully. "They only beat us by 18."
And Olson is sick of hearing that his Pac-10 champs haven't been tested; his team, he says, has shown West Coast kids that "you don't have to leave family and friends and go across the country and freeze your butt off to play on a team that makes the Final Four." Or to not play on a team that makes the Final Four. And that, as Arizona's reserves-without-reserve made clear, can be almost as fun.