THINGS could have gone worse for the Utes at Arrowhead Pond on Thursday, but they would have had to try. Hard. For instance, they could have come down the stretch, yanking free throws in thc clutch. Never mind. They did that. They could have gone the last nine minutes without a field goal. Oh-oh. Did that, too. Could they have turned the ball over repeatedly, just for good measure?

Is this a trick question?In the third round of the NCAA Tournament, the Utes tried pretty much everything they could think of to lose. No go. As the adage goes, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. For some strange reason, known only to regular users of the Psychic Hotline, the Utes are still alive, in spite of themselves. The win put them among the last eight teams in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.

"I don't think we can get away with doing that Saturday," said center Michael Doleac, after the Utes' 65-62 win over West Virginia. "But hopefully we won't have to."

Added coach Rick Majerus, "It was not an artistic game."

For the Utes, the win represented a major milestone in their long basketball history. It guaranteed a shot at the Final Four. Saturday they meet Arizona, a winner over Maryland. Curiously, they advanced this far on a year in which they weren't even picked to win their conference. It wasn't that they didn't have respect, they just didn't have Keith Van Horn. While Van Horn is working at earning the NBA Rookie of the Year award, the Utes are working on letting him know they can live without him. Life goes on.

"If we win Saturday and go to the Final Four, it's over," joked Doleac, holding his hand up as though making a phone call. "I'll be calling him up and saying, `Keith! Whassup, baby?' "

What exactly is up with the Utes isn't entirely clear. Through the first two rounds of the tournament, there were dire predictions that they could lose to quick, trapping, pressure-oriented teams. But it never happened. They dispatched San Francisco and Arkansas without seriously worrying along the way.

On Saturday, West Virginia took the same approach, but with a new wrinkle: size. And this time the Utes didn't hold up as well. They stumbled. They bungled. They slipped. They fell behind 6-0 and didn't catch up until they were six minutes into the game. As it continued, they looked less like an Elite Eight team and more like a warmed-over Air Force. They shot below their average, rebounded below their average, committed more turnovers and gave up more points.

"Things weren't going our way and they were playing unbelievable," said forward Britton Johnsen.

Although there were instances in which they seemed destined to finally do themselves in, nothing compared to the last two minutes. Clinging to a 63-62 lead with 1:38 to go, guard Andre Miller failed to pass to an open Alex Jensen on an in-bounds play, only to be whistled for a five-second violation. It didn't look good. Still, it looked better than Drew Hansen missing two free throws with 57 seconds to go.

"We were measuring our passes, measuring our shots," said Majerus.

While West Virginia continued missing, that didn't mean the Utes were through shooting themselves in their size 14s. On their last possession, a pass was knocked out of bounds. Then a Miller pass was nearly stolen by Damian Owens. Only Doleac's persistence - and 265 pounds of authority - kept the ball in the Utes' possession. Doleac was fouled with 6.5 seconds remaining, sinking two free throws.

"I was just thinking of the old days when you could be in an empty gym alone shooting free throws, and you could knock down a hundred in a row," he said.

In this case, two was just dandy.

West Virginia's Jarrod West, whose miracle shot at the buzzer last week sent the Mountaineers to the Sweet 16, was having no such luck this time around. His final shot fell away.

In the end, the Utes came away knowing they hadn't exactly tied up all the loose ends; knowing they had messed up and lived to tell. "I can't tell you how happy I am. I'm just emotionally drained," said Majerus. "Three hundred and twelve teams are sitting home on Saturday and wishing they were here."

At least 300 of them are wondering how the Utes managed to hang on. And wondering how the Utes came to have their one bad game of the tournament at just the right time.