Going into the 1997-98 season, no one expected the Utah basketball team to go to the national finals.
The Utes had lost four-year starter and first-team All-American Keith Van Horn from a team that made the Elite Eight the year before, as well as their top defensive player, Ben Caton.
Coach Rick Majerus even called it a "rebuilding year," commenting before the season, "We have three guys who have had unbelievable success and 10 guys who haven't had any success."
Actually, the Utes had four key players back in starters Michael Doleac, Andre Miller and Drew Hansen, along with Hanno Mottola, who had been a key reserve off the bench.
Still, great things weren't expected from a team that looked sloppy early in the season and had to rely on several freshmen in key roles. The Utes weren't even picked to win the Western Athletic Conference as New Mexico was tabbed the favorite.However, the Utes surprised everyone. Here's a look at their memorable NCAA Tournament run:
FIRST ROUND: MARCH 12: After receiving a No. 3 seed, the Utes were matched up with San Francisco of the West Coast Conference, which was playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 16 years. The game was played in Boise, where the Utes had played three years earlier as well as back in 1983.The Utes came out running against the smaller Dons as Miller and Hansen attacked the basket and found Doleac inside. A 13-point halftime lead reached 23 points early in the second half before the Dons rallied against the Ute reserves and cut the lead to eight. But the Utes pushed the lead back to double digits as Doleac led the way with 27 points, while Mottola and Hansen had 14 and 13, respectively. Final: Utah 85, San Francisco 68
SECOND ROUND, MARCH 14: Everyone remembers what Miller did against Arizona later in the tournament, but the Utes' second-round game against Arkansas was his coming-out party.
Miller was simply spectacular in scoring a career-high 28 points as he sliced and diced his way through the Razorbacks' pressing defense.
"Tonight it was Miller time," said Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. "He made all the right plays at the right time. He was the difference."
The Utes had built a 15-point lead in the first half and another 15-point lead in the second half, but as usual, let their opponent back into the game. The Razorbacks got within four late in the game, but Miller scored on three of four possessions to keep the Utes on top.Doleac added 16 points for the Utes, but freshman Britton Johnsen was a key to the win, playing 17 minutes, including the final 10, and scoring a season-high eight points. Final: Utah 75, Arkansas 69.
THIRD ROUND, MARCH 19: This marked the third straight year Utah advanced to the Sweet 16.
The Utes got a bit of a break when No. 10 seed West Virginia upset No. 2 Cincinnati by one point in the second round.
The game was played at The Pond in Anaheim and, for the third straight NCAA game, the Utes faced an athletic, pressing team in the Mountaineers. However, the Utes had their poorest performance of the tourney, getting outshot and outrebounded and making 19 turnovers and barely hanging on to win.
Majerus called it "an ugly win, no question about it" and said the Utes were "playing not to lose."After falling behind early, the Utes took a 6-point halftime lead and led by eight with less than eight minutes to play. They didn't score a field goal after that but hung on thanks to Doleac going 13-of-14 from the free-throw line, including two with 6.5 seconds left. WVU's Jarrod West, who had made a game-winning 3-pointer to beat Cincinnati, missed a 3 at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. Final: Utah 65, West Virginia 62.
FOURTH ROUND, MARCH 21: After Utah got past West Virginia, most Ute fans were just happy their team had made it to the Elite Eight for the second straight year because there was no way they had a chance against Arizona, the defending national champs with two first-team all-American guards and four future NBA players.
Or was there?
In the Friday interviews with the press, Majerus was surprisingly optimistic and didn't present the woe-is-us, we-have-no-chance persona.
"We have a plan I really like," he said. "It's a little wrinkle our kids feel really good about."
That little "wrinkle" turned out to be the "66 defense" or the triangle and two.
The Utes put Doleac and Mottola at the bottom of the triangle and Miller at the top with Hansen and Jensen covering Mike Bibby and Miles Simon, the All-American guards. Right from the start the Wildcats looked totally discombobulated by the defense and kept firing up errant shots. By the end of the game, the team had shot just 28.3 percent and Arizona's big three (Michael Dickerson, Bibby and Simon) were a combined 6-of-36.
Meanwhile, the Utes kept running and rebounding and, by the end of the game, Miller had 18 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists, one of the greatest individual games in NCAA history. Doleac (16 points, 11 rebounds) and Jensen (11 points, 10 boards) each had double-doubles, while Mottola had 14 points and David Jackson added 10 off the bench.The Utes led 29-20 at halftime, increased the lead to 45-27 early in the half and eventually led by as many as 28 in the surprisingly large margin of victory. Afterward, the Utes cut down the nets and celebrated with their fans on the court. Final: Utah 76, Arizona 51.
SEMIFINALS, MARCH 28: Like a week earlier, the Utes exhibited a quiet confidence before meeting No. 1-ranked North Carolina, which featured future NBA players Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and Shammond Williams.
The Utes came out like they were playing against Azusa Pacific, not the top-ranked team in the country and one of the most storied programs of all time. They scored the first six points of the game and led 15-2 and 28-12 before settling for a 35-22 halftime lead.
Utah maintained a steady lead for most of the second half, but the Tar Heels started to find their range and pulled within two points with 1:57 left. That's when Miller took the ball coast-to-coast for a layup and the Utes added six free throws in the final minute to ice the game.Miller had similar numbers to the Arizona game as he finished with 16 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists, while Doleac also scored 16. Final: Utah 65, North Carolina 59.
Sunday controversy, March 29: The Utes were distracted a bit on the off day between the semifinals and finals by an accusation by North Carolina's Makhtar Ndiaye that Ute freshman Britton Johnsen called him the "N-word."
Johnsen had said after the game that Ndiaye had spit on him during the game and Ndiaye replied that it was because of what Johnsen said to him.
The 18-year-old Ute freshman had to attend a special press conference and answer the charges, "The only words out of my mouth were 'I'm a hundred pounds lighter than you and I'm kicking your butt and he spit on me," Johnsen said.
Then Majerus took the stand and stood by his player even to the extreme of saying he would resign if Johnsen had said what he was accused of saying.
"I know this: Britton Johnsen is one of the nicest people and one of the highest character guys and I can say without reservation or hesitation that he did not call him a n- and I think the word is reprehensible. I stand behind my player 100 percent," Majerus said.The following day Ndiaye issued a statement acknowledging Johnsen did not use racial slurs against him.
FINALS, MARCH 30: Like they had in their upset wins over Arizona and North Carolina, the Utes came out strong against Kentucky, grabbing an 11-point lead at 34-23 and going into halftime with a 41-31 lead. Utah absolutely killed the Wildcats on the boards in the first half by a 24-6 margin and shot 57 percent from the field. The 10-point margin could have been much larger, except for 12 Ute turnovers in the first half.
Wildcat coach Tubby Smith stressed rebounding at halftime and decided to double-down on Doleac, who ended up not making a field goal in the second half. In the other locker room, Majerus admonished his players to stay aggressive and not get tentative with the lead.
The Utes came out strong and actually increased the lead to 12 early on, but the Wildcats, behind tournament MVP Jeff Sheppard and future Jazz player Scott Padgett, gradually chipped away. It was still 58-51 midway through the half when the roof caved in on Utah.
The Wildcats scored nine straight to take the lead before the Utes came back with six straight to regain the lead at 64-60 with just over five minutes left. Then came what several ex-Utes called the biggest play of the game.
Reserve guard Cameron Mills, who had tied the score at 58 with a 3-pointer, got loose around a screen and sank a 3-pointer at the top of the key.
Hansen was guarding Mills, but he had been having problems with back spasms all game after not practicing the day before. In fact, he had to get a cortisone injection at halftime.
"I was guarding Mills and he came off a double screen and I got there a split-second late," he said. "I was born to defend players like Cameron Mills. I'm not trying to make excuses, but I think if I had been healthy I could have stopped him. They went on a 6-0 run and if we had gotten a stop there, maybe we would have had enough left in the tank for Michael and Dre to carry us."
The Utes appeared to just run out of gas at that point. Several shots, including a short bank shot by Miller, missed their mark, and both Doleac and Miller missed free throws in the final four minutes. The final score was deceiving because it was still a four-point game with a half minute left, before the Wildcats put it away at the foul line.