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Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News
Alex Jensen

Michael Doleac has played in the NBA for 10 years and played against the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard. He's also played with O'Neal on the 2006 NBA championship team, which included Dwayne Wade.

Yet, ask Doleac what the highlight of his basketball career is, and he'll tell you without reservation it was the 1997-98 Utah basketball season when the Utes won five NCAA games to reach the NCAA championship game against Kentucky.

"It was a great experience, the most fun I've ever had playing basketball," he said. "Even winning the title with Miami doesn't even come close."

Ask Alex Jensen about his 1998 experience and he calls it a "fairy tale" and a "dream."

"I can remember running off after the North Carolina game and jumping around like little kids," he said.

Drew Hansen recalls the "fond memories" and how it "was such a pleasure playing with a great group of guys who

were such great friends."

Trace Caton remembers upsetting Arizona and everyone dancing together with their uniforms on in the shower, including coach Rick Majerus. "That was a side of him we never saw before," Caton said.

The 1997-98 basketball season is certainly one to remember for the University of Utah. Despite not even being picked to win their conference, the Utes started off with an 18-game winning streak, were ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation and eventually finished with a 30-4 record.

It was 10 years ago this week that the Utes were in San Antonio — just as UCLA, North Carolina, Kansas and Memphis are today — on college basketball's biggest stage.

"It was an incredible thing going to the Final Four," Doleac recalls. "All the activity, the fans, being on the Riverwalk, hanging with the guys, just incredible."

"It was quite the experience," Jensen said. "I remember we didn't get much sleep for a few days."

So what made the 1997-98 team so special?

Former Utah assistant coach Jeff Judkins, who's now the women's head coach at BYU, talks about the "balance" the team had with no superstars after losing Keith Van Horn the year before and a young group of backups. On different nights, different players would step up. But perhaps the team's best quality was its mental toughness.

"They wouldn't let anybody beat them," Judkins said. "They thought they could win any game."

That showed particularly in the regional final win over defending champion Arizona and the semifinal win over No. 1 North Carolina in San Antonio. The Utes were big underdogs in both games, but took it to their opponent from the get-go and never let up.

"We had that confidence that there was nobody we felt we couldn't beat," Jensen said.

The Utes also had great chemistry.

"We came to know each other very well and rely on each other and trust each other," Hansen said .

"We really jelled," said Nate Althoff, a freshman center on the team. "It started with Doleac and Dre (Andre Miller) and went right down to the walk-ons."

"We peaked at the right time," adds Caton, who was a freshman in 1997-98. "College basketball is about chemistry and timing and we had it."

The Utes were also very well coached. Doleac, who's played for six NBA teams under the likes of Pat Riley and Lenny Wilkens, calls Majerus, the best coach he's ever had "by far." And that year Majerus had perhaps his best staff with experienced assistant coaches in Judkins and Donny Daniels, who were each in their 10th seasons with the program.

"Coach Majerus did a great job and had us prepared for every game," Jensen said .

As great as that season was, the Ute players and coaches still have to live with the memory of coming oh so close, but losing to nemesis Kentucky in the finals after leading for most of the game.

"Those were some of the sweetest memories, but also some of the most bitter memories," Jensen said .

Hansen added, "There's a little bit of pain to think how close we came to being national champions."

Majerus still hasn't gotten over the pain of blowing a 10-point halftime lead and losing.

The former Ute coach declined to be interviewed for this story, but according to Jensen, who works on his staff at Saint Louis University, his boss still hasn't gotten over the 78-69 loss to Kentucky in the finals.

"I think of all the games he's coached, that's the one he replays in his mind the most," Jensen said. "I know coach Majerus beats himself up over things he would have done differently."

Perhaps the No. 1 thing on Majerus' list would have been resting his players more so they didn't tire as much at the end. Four starters, led by Miller with 37, played more than 32 minutes, while a fifth, Hanno Mottola, played 28 minutes.

"I probably should have cultivated the bench more," he said after the game. "I should have taken a timeout for rest down there at the end. I wouldn't have done it for anything but fatigue and rest. Andre looked like a punch-drunk fighter, standing on his last legs."

"We ran out of gas, I guess you could say," Jensen said .

Doleac, whose 34 minutes was his second-highest total of the season, admits to being tired at the end of the game, but doesn't know if the team's fatigue was the difference.

"Hindsight's 20-20 ... coulda, woulda, shoulda," Doleac said.

The loss was so painful that Doleac has never watched a replay of it. Neither has Jensen. Hansen has only seen part of it.

"We had them beat," Jensen said . "That's the hard thing about it. We had it."

Despite the loss, the Utes were feted at a parade in downtown Salt Lake City two days later. And the accomplishment of making the NCAA Finals and playing in front of millions of viewers around the world is still one of the biggest in University of Utah history.

"I just remember how much fun we had as a team with that group of guys and the relationships we had," Doleac said. "We just had a unique group of guys who worked hard and knew how to play the game and did it the right way."

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