So America knows the little team from Utah now, but will it be remembered?
They know the Utes' "country-fresh" players, as one writer called them. They know their coach's largesse and large-ness. They know Andre, Hanno and Dolie. They've met Jensen, Hansen and Johnsen. They know what a Ute is.The Utes' three-week dream run through the NCAA Tournament has captured the attention of a nation and a state. In Utah, people who don't even read the sports pages (imagine) are planting U. signs in their yards. Red flags wave over houses. Your neighbor is talking about the triangle-and-two. Women are pinching fruit at the grocery store in their red U. shirts.
America is wondering at this curiosity. In the era of Sprewell and Rodman, the Utes are a breath of fresh air, boys next door, clean-cut "A" students and missionaries and aspiring doctors and lawyers. They could be any small-town high school team in Amer-ica.
The Utes have just one piece of unfinished business to complete - to win the championship. The 64-team NCAA tournament and American sideshow has ended 62 breathless games later with only two teams still standing - Utah and Kentucky, winner take all.
Kentucky and Utah. That seems only fitting. For the Utes, it ain't over 'til . . . they face the Wildcats. Kentucky is their rite ofi passage. Three times in the last five years, the Utes met Kentucky in the NCAA tournament and lost every time. Without UK in their path, the Utes might well have made it to the Final Four sooner, but there was no getting around what was widely considered to be the best team in the land.
They sent the Utes home in the second round in 1993, the Sweet 16 in '96 and the Round of Eight in '97. Not even the presence of superstar Keith Van Horn was enough to beat them the last two years. None of the games was even close. After the first game, Utah coach Rick Majerus said Utah would lose to Kentucky 19 out of 20 tries. After the next game, he changed the numbers to 89 of 90. After that, the only thing Majerus wanted from Kentucky was a buck-et of drumsticks, extra crispy.
Now fate has crossed their paths again. Kentucky is the bike the Utes keep falling off and have to get right back on.
"The kids want to play Kentucky, because of all those losses," said Ute assistant coach Jeff Judkins.
"We wanted to play the best, and now we've got 'em," said Drew Han-sen.
The last time the Utes made it to the Final Four was 1966, and Kentucky was also in the field, although they avoided each other (the Utes lost in the semifinals). Kentucky met Texas Western in the championship game, and race was an issue as much as the basketball. Kentucky was lily white and proud of it; Texas Western was the Final Four's first all-black team. Kentucky lost.
Thirty-two years later Utah has returned to the Final Four with Kentucky, and this time the Wildcats are led by a black coach named Tubby and six black players. Their opponent has 11 white players and two blacks.
White or black, Kentucky is as blue-blooded as they come. Only UCLA and North Carolina can match their pedigree. They have visited the Final Four 13 times, which averages out to be about once every four years. This is the third straight year they have reached the championship game.
"Mind boggling," says Majerus. "Almost incomprehensible."
The Utes have this going for them: They are on a roll. They are are no fluke; they are the hottest team in the country. "I think we've taken five bad shots the whole tournament," marvels Majerus. The Utes took arguably the most difficult path through the NCAA minefield and got stronger every step of the way. They beat San Francisco and Arkansas. They beat West Virginia and Arizona. They beat North Carolina.
Their last two opponents were both seeded No. 1 in their regions. They were so frustrated and confused by the Utes that they were reduced to shouting and gesturing at each other and barking at the refs and Utes. A North Carolina player finally ran out of words but not saliva; he spit in their face. When that failed, he played the race card.
"We're peaking at the right time," says Drew Hansen.
"Things are falling into place," says Majerus.
For Majerus, the ultimate basketball junkie, it doesn't get any better than the Final Four. This is the chance of a lifetime, though he rarely dreamed so big. No one relishes the moment more than he.
"I never thought I'd be here," he says. "I don't know if I will ever get back here again. Probably not. I mean we are right there to win a national championship. It's important that we collect our thoughts and move forward with a purpose . . . We can't be satisfied. If we lose (Monday) night, we are really going to hurt."
The Utes won the Final Four only once, and 54 years later that team is still celebrated on the hill. Tonight, a new team seeks to make its mark in one of the greatest one-day sporting spectacles in the world. It's old money vs. new, Tubby vs. tubby, East vs. West. It's Utah vs. Kentucky, once more, from the top.