Just like it had the previous two seasons, the Utah basketball season ended Monday night with another disappointing loss to the University of Kentucky.
This time it was just a little different, however.This Ute loss came in the NCAA championship game in front of 40,509 fans at the Alamodome, with several hundred million more people around the world watching on television. And this time the Utes came oh, so close to pulling off the greatest athletic accomplishment ever for a Utah team.
For 35 minutes the Utes were on the verge of their first NCAA basketball championship in 54 years. They outrebounded, outdefended and outhustled the Wildcats, who were playing in the national title game for the third time in three years, only to see it slip away in a sea of missed shots at the end.
"I'm so discouraged; so sad," said Utah coach Rick Majerus. "I really thought we were right there to win it. There were just a number of critical points there at the end."
Utah was trying to win its second NCAA basketball title, the first since way back in 1944 when the NCAA championship wasn't near the national phenomenon it is now. They also were trying to pull off the ultimate NCAA trifecta of defeating the defending national champion (Arizona) and the two winningest programs of all time (North Carolina and Kentucky) in succession.
Before the game, Majerus said his team wouldn't be satisfied with just making the finals. He and the Utes really thought they could win this game, and all the red eyes in the locker room afterward were evidence of how crushed they were by the defeat.
"I think the whole game we felt we could pull it out," said Michael Doleac, who finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds. "I don't think there was a time when we thought we were outmatched."
"You know, I never thought I'd get here to begin with," said Majerus. "But I thought, geez, maybe we could win the national championship I really believed we'd win tonight."
It looked that way at halftime after the Utes played a terrific half and jumped out to a 10-point lead at 41-31. The 5,000 or so Ute fans were whooping it up in their corner of the Alamodome, while Kentucky fans across the way had lost their smug looks.
The Utes had out-rebounded the Wildcats, the No. 2-ranked rebounding team during the regular season (behind Utah), by an astounding 24 to 6 margin. They also shot 57 percent, compared to Kentucky's 45.2 percent, and without half of their 12 turnovers, they might have led by 20 at halftime.
But anyone who knew the two teams, knew a 10-point halftime lead meant nothing. The Wildcats had trailed in 11 games at halftime this year and come back to win nine of them. They also had come back from a 17-point, second-half deficit to defeat Duke in the South Regional finals and a nine-point, second-half deficit to defeat Stanford on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Utah has been famous the last couple of years for blowing big leads and not putting opponents away when they had the chance. In all three of their losses this year - to New Mexico, Wyoming and UNLV - the Utes had blown double-digit leads twice in the second half.
The Utes were admonished at halftime to keep playing aggressively and not tentative, and they came out strong, with Andre Miller scoring twice on drives to put the Utes up by 12 at 45-33. Hanno Mottola hit a pair of free throws and a 3-pointer to keep the lead at 10, 50-40.
Then the lead gradually began to slide away.
Mottola and Britton Johnsen both turned the ball over and then Miller missed a free throw after scoring on a drive.
Scott Padgett, who along with Jeff Sheppard, was a player the Utes didn't want to make 3-pointers, sank a trey to cut the lead to 54-48. The Utes got a pair of free throws from Alex Jensen and Doleac to make it 58-51, but then the roof caved in.
Miller was called for a foul away from the ball, Doleac missed a two-footer, Miller missed an inside shot and then Mottola missed badly on a 3-pointer from the side.
Meanwhile, Allen Edwards and Nazr Mohammed scored for Kentucky, and then walk-on reserve guard Cameron Mills sank a 3-pointer from the left corner to tie the score at 58 with 7:38 left. Then Sheppard stole a Mottola pass and went in for a layup to give Kentucky its first lead since early in the first half.
The Utes righted themselves after a 20-second timeout and ran off six straight points on two Mottola foul shots, a Miller drive and a Jensen layup.
Then Kentucky called a 20-second timeout and the Wildcats came back with seven straight points to go ahead for good as Mills hit another 3-pointer, Sheppard sank a baseline jumper and Jamaal Magliore hit two free throws.
At 69-65, Miller had a bank shot go around the rim and out and then Mottola missed a 3-pointer. Both teams made one of two free throws and with 55 seconds left, the Utes had one last chance after a Kentucky turnover.
However, Miller's 3-point shot was blocked by Heshimu Evans, and the Wildcats made the final score a little deceptive with six foul shots and a dunk by Wayne Turner. Jensen's 3-pointer in the final seconds broke a string of 10 straight missed shots for Utah.
Miller, who had carried the Utes on his shoulders all through the tournament finished with a game-high 16 points, six rebounds and five assists. But he also had a season-high eight turnovers against the pressure of Kentucky's defense.
Doleac and Mottola finished with 15 points, but Doleac didn't make a field goal in the final 25 minutes of the game after a quick start. Jensen added 14 points, but otherwise the only Ute points came from Johnsen (seven) and Drew Hansen (two).
Kentucky was led by Padgett with 17, tournament MVP Sheppard with 16 and 10 apiece from Evans and Mohammed. The Wildcats shot 58 pecent in the second half and 50.9 percent for the game, the first team all season that has shot above 50 percent against Utah.
In the first half, unlike the Arizona and North Carolina games when they jumped out to quick leads, the Utes started a little shaky. The usually reliable Miller turned the ball over on three of the first five possessions and by halftime had six turnovers.
Kentucky led 8-4 and 11-8, when the Utes went on a 9-2 run to go up 17-13 on consecutive baskets by Mottola. Then the Utes hit a lull with three turnovers and three misses, but Kentucky couldn't take advantage. With 6:45 left, Utah led just 24-23, but Jensen scored a layup, Doleac sank a 3-pointer and Miller went all the way on a fast break.
Then Sheppard, who was clearly frustrated at this point, fired up a 3-pointer with about 30 seconds still on the shot clock and Miller found Jensen downcourt for a layup and a foul and just like that it was 34-23. When Hansen hit a 15-footer from the left corner, the Utes led 41-31.
If the game had ended then, the Utes would be national champions, but they just couldn't hold on for 20 more minutes.
Still, despite the discouraging loss, Majerus says he will see the positives.
"When we look back on this season, everyone is going to feel terrific," said Majerus. "I don't want tonight to detract from the season. I told the team, we're not No. 2, we're 1-A."
... First half Second half Total
Kentucky 31 47 78
Utah 41 28 69