First round, March 12
Boise Pavilion, Boise, Idaho
Utah 85, San Francisco 68
The 14th-seeded Dons had not been to an NCAA Tournament in 16 years and weren’t expected to give the Utes much of a game with a lineup that included no one taller than 6-foot-6.
After scoring just 51 points in their previous game against UNLV, the Utes came out running and quickly jumped out to a 23-point lead. But like they had done in several other games during the season — including all four of their losses when they squandered double-digit leads — they let the Dons back in the game.
San Francisco cut the margin to eight midway through the second half after coach Rick Majerus sent in four reserves at the same time. (“I’d like to think we’re going to the tournament every year and we’ve got to get them tournament experience,” the coach explained afterward.)
Once the main guys returned to the floor, the Utes pushed the lead back to double digits and eventually cruised to the 17-point victory. Michael Doleac finished with 27 points, including 15 of 17 from the free-throw line, while Hanno Mottola scored 14 and Drew Hansen 13.
“Right now, we are on track as we can be,” Majerus said afterward. “I thought we played hard.”
Second round, March 14
Boise Pavilion, Boise Idaho
Utah 75, Arkansas 69
The Utes were able to advance against the pressure defense of Arkansas thanks to Andre Miller, who had his best game up to date as a Ute, scoring 28 points on 9 of 14 from the field and 10 of 13 from the foul line in 39 minutes of action.
Majerus gave Miller free rein, and the junior guard sliced and diced the Razorbacks’ aggressive defense, often dribbling the length of the court and scoring.
As was the case in many games during the season, the Utes broke out to a big lead, going up 30-15 late in the first half, only to see Arkansas pull within nine at the break. The Utes pushed the lead back to 15 in the second half, but five straight turnovers allowed the Razorbacks back in the game at 48-45.
Down the stretch, Miller was unstoppable, scoring 14 of his points in the final seven minutes. Alex Jensen came up with what Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson called “the biggest play of the ball game,” when he slipped inside a defender on a missed free throw and put it in to put the Utes up by nine.
“I’m so proud of Andre,” said Majerus. “He played so tough and so smart.”
The only other Ute to score in double figures was Doleac with 16 points. The game was also the coming-out party for freshman Britton Johnsen, who had sat out much of the season with a knee injury. Johnsen played the final 10 minutes and scored a season-high eight points.
“You talk about Miller tonight, it was Miller time,” said Richardson. “He made all the plays at the right time. He was the difference.”
Third round, March 19
Arrowhead Pond, Anaheim, California
Utah 65, West Virginia 62
The Utes faced their third straight full-court pressing team in West Virginia, an unlikely entrant into the Sweet 16. The Mountaineers had not made it that far since the days of Jerry West in 1959 and were a No. 10 seed in the 1998 tourney. They had knocked off Temple by 30 points in the opening round, then nipped No. 2 seed Cincinnati on a banked 3-pointer in the final seconds.
The Utes survived their shakiest performance of the tournament, getting outshot and outrebounded, while committing 19 turnovers and not making a field goal during the last nine minutes of the game.
“It was an ugly game, no doubt about it,” said Majerus. “It was not an artistic game. We were playing not to lose, rather than to win.”
Still, the Utes hung on, thanks to clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch as Doleac sank 13 of 14 on the night.
The Utes fell behind early, before coming back to take a 34-28 halftime lead
Miller sank a 3-pointer with 9:05 left to give the Utes a 53-48 lead, but after that, the Utes hung on for dear life. Twice, West Virginia had a chance to take the lead when the Utes were up 63-62, but Jarrod West, the team’s leading scorer, who was 4 for 13 on the night, missed a 3-pointer and a 12-footer.
The Utes held a one-point lead with the ball and 37.5 seconds left when the Mountaineers fouled Doleac off an inbounds play at the 6.5-second mark and the Ute big man calmly sank both tries.
West had beaten Cincinnati with a last-second 3-pointer a week earlier, but this time, his last-second shot bounced away, and the Utes celebrated.
Fourth round, March 21
Arrowhead Pond, Anaheim, California
Utah 76, Arizona 51
After barely knocking off West Virginia two nights earlier, the Utes were given little to no chance of beating Arizona in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats were the defending national champions with their six top players returning from that team.
But the Utes were confident going into the game. After the West Virginia win, Majerus had said, “I hope we’ve got a couple of more cards left in the deck to play.”
It turned out he had some cards up his sleeve.
It was a triangle-and-two defense the Utes employed with Miller being the point of the triangle. It gave him the chance to conserve some energy and run free on the offensive end as he finished with a triple-double with 18 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists.
The Utes broke away from a tight game, scoring eight straight points to go up 17-8, and eventually took a 29-20 lead into the half.
“We came out with confidence, and they started bickering,” said Hansen.
The nine-point halftime lead meant little against the high-scoring Wildcats, and the Utes knew it, having blown an 11-point lead to the Wildcats a year earlier in an early-season game.
At 35-25, the Utes went on a 10-2 run to make it 45-27, and from there kept rolling. When Doleac converted a three-point play it was 58-36 with 6:40 left. The Utes pushed the lead to 28 and coasted to an unexpected thumping of the defending national champs.
Lost in the shadow of Miller’s triple-double were double-doubles by Doleac (16 points, 11 rebounds) and Jensen (11 points, 10 rebounds).
“I’ve never gone into a game not thinking we were going to win,” said Majerus. “But to win by 25 points is just unbelievable.”
NCAA Semifinal, March 28
Alamodome, San Antonio
Utah 65, North Carolina 59
The Utes were fast out of the gates against the country’s No. 1 team, scoring the first six points and racing to a 15-2 lead. The Tar Heels looks completely bewildered by Utah’s switching defenses, missing seven of their first eight shots while turning the ball over a couple of times.
The lead got as high as 28-12, and the Utes went into halftime up 35-22. Utah was still leading 56-45 when it went into one of its funks that cost the Utes in each of their four losses as they went scoreless for four minutes and didn’t make a field goal for six.
The Tar Heels came back to close the gap to two at 57-55 with 1:57 left. After a 20-second timeout, Miller took the ball coast to coast for a layup and the Utes hit six straight free throws to seal the deal. Miller filled up boxscore again — 16 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists.
Besides Miller, Doleac also scored 16, while Mottola had nine and Johnsen and Jensen seven apiece.
Antawn Jamison was held to just 14 points on 7-of-19 shooting, while future NBA star Vince Carter led his team with 21 points on 10-of-16 shooting.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am,” said Majerus, who thoroughly outcoached the Tar Heels' Bill Guthridge. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get back here again. I mean, we are there to win a national championship. At least we are playing for it.”
NCAA National Championship, March 31
Alamodome, San Antonio
Kentucky 78, Utah 69
With a worldwide television audience, the Utes had some jitters in the opening minutes, as the usually reliable Miller turned the ball over on three of their first four possessions as the Utes fell behind 8-4 and 11-8. The Utes then went on an 11-2 run with Mottola hitting consecutive baskets.
With 6:24 left in the half, the Utes led 24-23 but finished with a flourish. They ran off 10 straight points as Jensen hit a layup, Doleac a 3-pointer, Miller went all the way for a layup, and Jensen converted a three-point play after Miller found him behind the defense. When Hansen sank a 15-footer on the left baseline, the Utes went into halftime with a comfortable 41-31 lead.
The Utes shot 57 percent in the opening half compared to 45 percent for the Wildcats, and outrebounded Kentucky 24-6. You’d figure the Utes would have been up by more than 10, but 12 first-half turnovers were costly.
The Utes scored the first basket of the first half to extend their lead and were still up 50-40 when it started to slip away as Scott Padgett and Jeff Sheppard made 3-pointers. It was still 58-51 under the 10-minute mark, but Kentucky came back to tie it. The Utes briefly righted themselves with six straight, but then the roof caved in.
The Wildcats scored seven straight to take the lead at 65-64, and the Utes never led again. At 69-65, Miller had a bank shot go around and out and Mottola missed a 3-pointer.
The Utes had one last chance, but Miller’s 3-point try with under a minute left was blocked by Heshimu Evans, and the Wildcats made the final score a little deceptive with six free throws and a dunk by Wayne Turner in the final 45 seconds.
Miller led the Utes with 16 points, but he didn’t have his best night as he went 6 for 15 from the field and finished with an uncharacteristic eight turnovers.
Padgett, who would later get drafted by the Utah Jazz, led Kentucky with 17 points, while tournament MVP Sheppard scored 16 and Nazr Mohammed and Evans each chipped in 10.