In the end, the University of Utah Runnin' Utes were just one more speed bump on the road to immortality. The Nevada-Las Vegas Runnin' Rebels - your official Team for the Ages - defeated the upstart Utes 83-66 Thursday night in the West Regional semifinals, just as the oddsmakers had predicted. But for a time, the Utes had 22,628 fans in the Seattle Kingdome positively buzzing.
Who could believe it? The game was 28 minutes old, and the Utes were down by only seven points. In the relative terms of UNLV games, this was a nail-biter,which is exactly what Coach Jerry Tarkanian was doing over there on the bench. But all that changed quickly enough. The Rebels ran off nine unanswered points and, just like that, the suspense was finished.
The No. 1-ranked Rebels, 33-0, claimed their 44th consecutive victory and did nothing to diminish their reputation as possibly the greatest college team ever to lace up sneakers. What's more, they are three games away from claiming their second consecutive national championship.
"I'm so darned depressed," said Ute Coach Rick Majerus. "I really felt we could win. Maybe I'm the most naive . . . in the world."
Well, the Utes, after all, were rated 16- to 20-point underdogs. Even Ute fans seemed resigned to fate. As the game wound down, they hoisted a sign that read: "Thanks, Utes, for a great year," which surely indicated they had expected a loss.
Perhaps what irked Majerus as much as the loss was the way the Utes lost - to a zone defense that he never saw coming.
The Utes spent the vast majority of the week's practices working on an attack for the Rebels' aggressive man-to-man defense. The Rebels have used a zone this year, but the man-to-man is the pride of their game, and Majerus guessed they would use it against the Utes. When Thursday's Seattle newspapers quoted Tarkanian discussing his man-to-man defense, he believed he had guessed correctly.
He was half right.
In the first half, the Rebels played mostly a man-to-man pressure defense, and the Utes attacked it aggressively and successfully. Nine Utes played, and nine Utes scored. What's more, they played the Rebels straight up in rebounds and turnovers. At halftime they trailed 41-35 - despite shooting 44 percent to the Rebels' 60 percent.
"We've got them on the ropes," Majerus told the Utes at halftime. "And our shots aren't dropping."
But in the second half, Tarkanian did the unexpected: switched to his so-called "amoeba" zone defense, which stretches and moves like the one-celled animal it's named after, pressuring the ball.
Majerus was caught off guard. "I never thought we'd have trouble with their zone," said Majerus. "We haven't played against it much this year or worked on it."
The zone caused the Utes immediate problems, and the Rebels opened an 11-point lead to start the second half. The Utes answered back with a trey from Byron Wilson and a dunk from Walter Watts to cut the gap to 48-42. But then the Utes began to falter again against the zone.
"We didn't attack it," said forward Josh Grant. "We weren't aggressive. It made us play tentatively. We just stayed on the perimeter. They mixed it up. Sometimes they trapped, sometimes they played soft. We threw the ball away a lot, and they capitalized on turnovers."
The Utes, unable and seemingly unwilling to penetrate, missed four long shots, including two treys by Phil Dixon, and the Rebels opened a 13-point lead. The Utes, as they had throughout the second half, rallied again. Dixon made a trey, Wilson hit a pair of foul shots and Watts converted a three-point play, cutting the gap to 57-50 with 12:29 remaining. When the Utes fell apart again, this time there was no recovering. During the next 4:46 of play, they barely got off a shot, yet alone score.
The Utes killed the shot clock on one possession. Grant and Craig Rydalch threw errant passes. Grant and Wilson missed NBA-length treys. The Rebels, meanwhile, made their move, packing the ball inside to Larry Johnson and Elmore Spencer.
"The turning point was when we went to our amoeba zone," said Tarkanian. "Our zone really worked well, surprisingly so. Our man to man has worked well 95 percent of the season. I came into this game confident that we could take them out of their offense, but they ran it right to the end."
"Tark made a heckuva move," said Majerus. "He didn't get caught up in his ego and say, `We're a man-to-man team.' He said `Screw it. The man-to-man is not working, we'll go with the zone."
The critical numbers: The Utes, who matched the Rebels' 34 rebounds, committed 11 of their 18 turnovers in the second half. The Rebels had only nine, two in the second half. The Utes shot their standard 41 percent from the field to the Rebels' 56 percent.
Johnson finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds. Spencer and Stacey Augmon had 15 each.
If the Utes weren't practiced in the art of the zone defense, they were having other problems as well Thursday night. After a week of extra practice and banging away with the Rebels, they were fatigued in the second half, which surely reduced their aggressiveness against the zone. "I don't think Josh could move," said Majerus. "I probably played him too much." Majerus also said, "In retrospect, we shouldn't have practiced today. The guys were tired." Besides practicing once on Tuesday and twice on Wednesday (including the shootaround at the Kingdome and a practice at Seattle University), the Utes also practiced for 45 minutes the day of the game.
"We had a lot of ground to cover," said Majerus.
Grant finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Jimmy Soto had 12 points, making four of five shots. Watts had 11 points and five rebounds.
Thus, the Utes' golden season came to an end. They finish the season with a 30-4 record. "I love these kids," said Majerus. "I don't want 20 minutes of one game to diminish what they've accomplished this season."
No sooner had they reached the locker room following Thursday's loss than the Utes, who lose just one player (Watts) to graduation, were asking Majerus when they could begin training for next season. Majerus ordered them to take three weeks off, but don't expect the coach to take a vacation. He plans to recruit.
Said Majerus, "After seeing this (game), I want to get a couple of more players."