One Bad Game: Paul Pierce remembers ’97

Posted on Mar 31, 2015 in Alumni News, News, and Sports

In a blog post titled “One Bad Loss” Paul Pierce shared his memories of the one that got away in 1997, and for Pierce, ’99, KU’s epic upset loss to Arizona still stings.

“Our team was just about unstoppable that season — we started the year 22-0,” Pierce noted. “ESPN was calling us the national title favorites. Our only loss during the regular season was against Mizzou in double OT, and we beat them by double-digits the next two times we faced them.”

The 1996-97 Jayhawks featured a line-up many consider the best in KU’s storied history, including future NBA stars like Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz and Scot Pollard, along with Jacque Vaughn, Jerod Hasse, Ryan Robertson and Billy Thomas to boot.

“We entered the 1997 NCAA tournament that year as the No. 1 overall seed and won our first two games convincingly. In the Sweet 16, we were set to face No. 4 Arizona. We had beaten them the previous season in the Sweet 16, so I felt like we were ready.”

But fate has a funny way of manifesting itself, and as KU relished the role of Cinderella in ’88, it would experience the madness of March in ’97 running headlong into eventual NCAA Tournament Champion Arizona, which had a date with destiny. Despite a thrilling comeback, KU would fall by three points, as a last-second shot clanged off the rim. As bad as the loss was for the rest of the team to take, it might have been harder on Pierce. Like all champions, Pierce wanted the ball in that clutch situation, and he remains haunted by those final seconds in which he never touched the ball.

Roy Williams in the UDK via kualumni.org

A University Daily Kansan clipping captured the heartbreaking loss

“Coming all the way back from a big deficit and me not having a crack at the final shot made it hurt that much worse. I just remember crying in the locker room after that game. All of us were crying — the entire team was completely devastated. To us, it was a wasted season.”

KU Alumni and fans also shed tears along with Head Coach Roy Williams, who would call it the most painful loss of his coaching career. But as Pierce concluded, that’s why they call it March Madness.

“The tournament is unforgiving. If you have one bad game, that’s it. Throughout my career I’ve had many losses, but all these years later, this is one that still stings.”

Pierce’s full post, including pictures and video clips, can be read online at theplayerstribune.com. Danny Manning’s reflection on the ’88 championship, titled “It’s Over,” was featured earlier this year.

– David Johnston

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