AN OFFICIAL AT the doorway to the locker room said, "Watch the floor and be careful. It's very wet."
The problem was the group shower; it had messed the place up. The floor at the Anaheim Pond was roughly the consistency of a Slurpee. One more layer and the Mighty Ducks could have practiced on it. It was a good place to park a Zamboni but a bad place to walk.The impromptu shower was the result of the University of Utah's first Final Four berth since 1966. After dispatching Arizona 76-51 in the West Regional Finals on Saturday, the Utes had mingled at midcourt to hug, weep, bump chests, belly-bounce, high-five, cut down the nets, mug for the camera and carry on like they'd just won the lottery.
Which, of course, they had.
"I remember Danny Ainge taking BYU to the final eight," said forward Alex Jensen. Then he paused. "But this . . . this is . . . this is unbelievable."
If the Utes were getting slightly crazy, it stands to reason. These are players who, under normal circumstances, do nothing crazier than call their mothers twice in the same day. They ask coach Rick Majerus' permission for everything except what they wear to school. If there is anything Majerus treasures, it's his team's discipline. Step out of line and you're liable to find yourself nailed to the bench. The Utes have learned through hard experience to listen to Majerus' orders and take note.
But after making it to the Final Four, it was time to pull out all the stops. The team charged into the locker room and suddenly someone got a brainstorm. "Group shower!" a player yelled. Everyone was in, still fully clothed - sixteen players, four assistant coaches, one trainer and the equipment manager. Even Majerus joined in, a bowling ball hitting the pins. They emerged looking like the cast of "Titanic."
"There were a lot of hugs. A lot of people crying. A lot of chest-thumping," said trainer Gerald Fischer.
The celebration carried out into the locker room, where the water mingled with sprayed soft drinks.
If navigating back out to their lockers on the wet floor was a problem, it was the only one the Utes faced all day. For most of the afternoon, they were in no danger whatsoever. They slapped their triangle-and-two defense on the Wild-cats and suddenly it looked less like a contest and more like a mutilation. Utah was the orneriest dog in the neighborhood.
Oddly enough, Saturday's upset victory came with fairly little pregame fanfare. Faced with the prospect of making the most prestigious field in college sports, the Utes kept to their normal, everyday routine. It was a quiet bus ride, a quiet preparation. Nobody bit the head off a chicken to get them fired up. Nobody rattled any sabers. Majerus avoided quoting either Vince Lombardi or Winston Churchill, simply telling players they had a privilege few ever enjoy.
Of course, it was the same simple speech he gave them before the WAC Tournament, and they lost in the first round.
So much for firing up the troops.
"I'd like to tell you he said something magical, but no," Fischer said.
Still, once the game began, it was obvious the Utes were prepared. They took the lead at 9-8 and never trailed again. They handled Arizona's press with ease and defended them into the ground. They outshot the Wildcats, outrebounded them and outmuscled them. Arizona coach Lute Olsen's hair was getting whiter by the moment.
The Wildcats were quickly, irreversibly, lost.
"We had them so confused, they didn't know what to do," said forward Britton Johnsen.
Early in the second half, Arizona cut a 12-point lead to eight. But Utah's Andre Miller rose up to swat away a Michael Dickerson shot, Utah reeled off eight straight points, and the rout was on. The defending national champs were headed back to Boot Hill in a box.
"I've said this is the best situation you'd ever want to be in," said Johnsen in the locker-room din. "He (Majerus) is the smartest man in basketball. He's tough to play for, but I don't care. It's all forgotten. He's the greatest coach ever."
Then he paused, the water still dripping off his chin. The wet wasn't a problem. "This," he said, "is not real. We're goin' to San Antonio. This is not real."