Four times this decade Lute Olson and his Arizona Wildcats have strutted into the NCAA Tournament as one of the top five seeds. Four times they've been sent packing in the first round by a far lowlier team.
The latest one might be the toughest to swallow, though. Oklahoma's 61-60 upset of the fourth-seeded Wildcats at the Midwest Regional on Friday came on a tip-in from Ryan Humphrey with 21 seconds left that might or might not have been offensive goaltending.
"He did touch the ball, but that's just something that happens," Arizona's Jason Terry said. "It was definitely goaltending, but it wasn't called, so I guess not."
After Eric Martin missed a 3-pointer for Oklahoma (21-10), Eduardo Najera followed with a layup attempt. While Najera says his shot was good, Humphrey admits he got a hand on it, and it was Humphrey who got credit for the basket in the official play-by-play.
"It was coming out and I might have had a fingertip on it," Humphrey said. "As long as we won, that's the only thing that matters."
"It was a team effort," Michael Johnson concluded.
That's not going to be much consolation to Arizona (22-7). The Wildcats had enough time to win the game, but Terry missed a fallaway 10-footer with about three seconds left. Then complete chaos set in. Freshman Richard Jefferson missed a one-handed tip-in, got the rebound and missed another shot as he fell in the lane at the buzzer.
But the official statistics said it was A.J. Bramlett who grabbed a rebound and missed a tip-in.
"I thought he was going to make it," Bramlett said of Terry's shot. "I thought Richard's were going to go in. I never think we're going to lose because we always make those shots to win the game."
But the shots didn't fall and as the buzzer sounded, the 13th-seeed Sooners -- the last at-large team to get a bid -- stormed the court, hugging each other and jumping around. Terry, the Pac-10 player of the year, watched in disbelief.
Najera led the Sooners with 17 points and 13 rebounds, while Humphrey added 15. Michael Wright, the Pac-10 freshman of the year, led the Wildcats with 16 points.
Oklahoma will play North Carolina-Charlotte in the second round. The fifth-seeded 49ers defeated 12th-seeded Rhode Island 81-70 in overtime earlier Friday.
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"It was definitely disbelief," said Terry, who finished with 15 points despite being held without a field goal in the first half. "The last couple of seconds, I was reminiscing about all the good days. Today wasn't one of them."
Despite winning a national title in 1997, there haven't been many good days in the first round for the Wildcats. They lost their first game as the No. 3 seed in 1992, No. 2 seed in 1993 and No. 5 seed in 1995.
Although the Wildcats have been in the tournament every year since 1985, they've failed to get out of the first round seven times during that period.
"I want to make one thing clear: This group of seniors is 11-3 in the NCAA tournament," coach Lute Olson said. "They can't do anything about what happened eight years ago or four years ago.
"These seniors have given us 11 wins and three losses," he added. "Most programs across the country would be happy with that."
The Wildcats can only blame themselves for this loss. Oklahoma didn't take its first lead until Najera's 3-pointer made it 49-46 with 8:01 remaining. Arizona got the lead back and extended it to 60-56 on Jefferson's layup with 1:43 to play.
But Najera came up big, hitting a 3-pointer from deep in the left corner to cut Arizona's lead to 60-59 with 48 seconds left. And then, after an Oklahoma timeout, the Wildcats gave the ball away.
As Wright went to inbound the ball, Terry ran up the court and Jefferson turned around. There was no one for Wright to throw the ball to, but he couldn't pull himself back and stepped over the line for the turnover.
The Sooners' next possession resulted in the game-winning basket.
"We made a lot of bad mistakes and turnovers and stupid stuff throughout the game," Bramlett said. "It's not just one play that loses a game.
"It's tough to go out this way, but we played our hearts out."
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