Greg Hansen counts down the top teams in Tucson sports history, from 100 to 1. Here’s the full list. | subscribers
In 1989, an “aerodynamic” Sean Elliott became the Pac-10’s all-time leading scorer during the Wildcats’ 38-point win over UCLA at McKale Center.
Arizona Daily Star 1989
Tipoff for the Feb. 18, 1989 UCLA-Arizona game at McKale Center was pushed back to 4 pm to satisfy CBS’s Saturday schedule, giving Sean Elliott time to get a haircut.
By the time Elliott walked onto the court in mid-afternoon, he had a new look: a shaved head. Upon first sight of their new-look superstar, the raucous McKale Center crowd gave Elliott the first of what seemed like endless standing ovations.
“It should make me more aerodynamic,” Elliott said with a laugh.
Elliott wasn’t just aerodynamic that afternoon, he was in orbit. He scored 35 points in a 102-64 victory over the Bruins, then the worst loss in UCLA history. Elliott’s free throw with 7:10 remaining — his 35th point — made him the Pac-10’s career leading scorer, passing UCLA’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
I walked into the UCLA dressing room a few minutes after the game and Bruins coach Jim Harrick — an old friend since his coaching days at my alma mater, Utah State — pulled me aside and shook his head.
“How many guys have you ever seen better than he is?” Harrick asked. “Really? How many?”
In 1989, it was a very small number.
The Wildcats opened the year ranked No. 9 in the AP Top 25 poll, but rose to No. 1 by Feb. 6 and were again voted No. 1 on the weeks of Feb. 27, March 6 and March 13.
Tucson had never experienced anything like the Sean Elliott Story. Raised by a single mother, Odiemae Elliott, a nurse, Elliott emerged as a basketball standout at Cholla High School in the mid-1980s, although few noticed outside Tucson.
Elliott chose Arizona over UTEP, which was a remarkable bit of timing for UA coach Lute Olson, who moved to Tucson when Elliott was completing his sophomore year at Cholla.
After Elliott’s 35-point outburst against UCLA, Olson said: “Sean is the best big-game player I’ve ever seen or coached.”
The 1988-89 season was nothing if not a series of Big Games.
In early November, the Wildcats lost 79-72 to No. 10 North Carolina in a made-for-TV game in Charlotte. They returned to Tucson and whipped No. 9 UNLV as Elliott scored 35 points and gathered 15 rebounds.
In early February, the top-ranked Wildcats played at No. 5 Oklahoma, the team that had ended their national championship hopes 10 months earlier at the Final Four. OU won in a dramatic 82-80 finish as Elliott scored 26.
The month ended with a made-for-TV game in East Rutherford. New Jersey. Elliott all but clinched national player of the year honors with a game-clinching 3-pointer and the Wildcats beat No. 9 dukes, 77-75.
The ’89 Wildcats played at a higher level than their Pac-10 partners, finishing 17-1. The only loss was at No. 19 Stanford on Jan. 5, 83-78. Arizona had winning streaks of 11 and 10 games and routed Stanford in the Pac-10 Tournament finale, 73-51.
On Selection Sunday, Arizona earned a No. 1 seed and was also ranked No. 1 in the AP poll.
Its route to a second consecutive Final Four looked clear. After routing Clemson to reach the Sweet 16, the Wildcats were sent to McNichols Arena in Denver for a rematch with Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV Rebels.
UNLV had been the West’s leading basketball power in the 1980s, going 165-23 in the previous five seasons and reaching the 1987 Final Four. And although the ’89 Rebels had considerable talent with guards Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt and defensive stopper Stacey Augmon, most thought UNLV was a year away from another Final Four.
But in the Sweet 16 in Denver, neither the Rebels nor the Wildcats flinched. An Elliott jumper over Augmon gave Arizona a 67-65 lead in the final minute. But everything changed when Arizona was called for a traveling violation with 29 seconds remaining.
After working the clock to the final five seconds, Hunt positioned himself to shoot a 3-pointer over Arizona guard Kenny Lofton, the UA’s top defensive player. What happened next will be debated forever.
Hunt appeared to push off, giving Lofton a forearm to clear space for a shot.
Lofton fell to the court. There was no whistle from an official.
Anderson’s 3-pointer swished. UNLV won 68-67 as Elliott’s career came to a tearful end.
Olson described his team’s loss as “bitter.” Elliott embraced his mother, Odiemae, in a corridor outside the UA locker room and wept on her shoulder.
The Wildcats finished 29-4, gone too soon, a loss that took years to process.
Hansen’s top teams…so far
No. 100: 1961 Tucson Cowboys baseball team
No. 99: 1992 UA women’s golf team
No. 98: 1961 Rincon High School baseball team
No. 97: 2000 Flowing Wells High softball team
No. 96: 1984 UA men’s cross country team
No. 95: 2004 Salpointe Catholic High boys tennis team
No. 94: 1944 Tucson High football team
No. 93: 1992 Pima College baseball team
No. 92: 1958 Tucson High boys golf team
No. 91: 1992 UA women’s tennis team
No. 90 : 1998 Sahuaro High School girls basketball team
No. 89: 1986 International Little League baseball team
No. 88: 2015 Desert Christian High School baseball team
No. 87: 1998 UA women’s basketball team
No. 86: 1984 Sunnyside High School wrestling team
No. 85: 1979 Tucson Sky volleyball team
No. 84: 1998 UA men’s track and field team
No. 83: 1980 Pima College boys cross country team
No. 82: 1939 Tucson High boys track and field team
No. 81: 1973 Palo Verde High School football team
No. 80: 1976 UA men’s basketball team
No. 79: 1985 Icecats club hockey team
No. 78: 1991 UA softball team
No. 77: 1949 Tucson High basketball team
No. 76: 1986 UA football team
No. 75: 1993 Tucson Toros baseball team
No. 74: 1992 UA gymnastics team
No. 73: 2010 Canyon del Oro High School boys soccer team
No. 72: 1979 Tucson High boys swimming team
No. 71: 1984 Santa Rita High School girls basketball team
No. 70: 1973 Cactus Little League baseball team
No. 69: 1941 Tucson Cowboys baseball team
No. 68: 1985 Pima College baseball team
No. 67: 2000 UA men’s club volleyball team
No. 66: 1993 Salpointe Catholic High School softball team
No. 65: 1969 Marana High School boys basketball team
No. 64: 2001 Sunnyside High School football team
No. 63: 1993 U.A. softball team
No. 62: 1952 Tucson High football team
No. 61: 1974 U.A. baseball team
No. 60: 1974 UA football team
No. 59: 1987 Canyon del Oro High School girls basketball team
No. 58: 1941 Tucson High baseball team
No. 57: 1951 UA men’s basketball team
No. 56: 1999 Santa Rita High School boys basketball team
No. 55: 2000 UA women’s golf team
No. 54: 1979 Amphitheater High School football
No. 53: 1956 U.A. baseball team
No. 52: 1969 Tucson High boys basketball team
No. 51: 2007 UA softball team
No. 50: 2001 UA women’s volleyball team
No. 49: 1989 Salpointe Catholic High School boys soccer team
No. 48: 2018 UA women’s golf team
No. 47: 1937 UA football team
No. 46: 1994 Canyon Del Oro High School baseball team
No. 45: 1962 Tucson High boys basketball team
No. 44: 2018Pima College men’s soccer team
No. 43: 1961 UA football team
No. 42: 1993 Sunnyside High School boys basketball team
No. 41: 1997 UA softball team
No. 40: 1989 Arizona men’s basketball team