Upstart Utah, Kentucky play on 16-2 start kicks Utes by Heels, 65-59


SAN ANTONIO -- The tournament isn't over until the Fat Man is finished coaching.

Rick Majerus, the Utah boss who comes with a large waistline and a larger wealth of basketball knowledge, pulled another fine effort out of his big team that could last night. Just as they did defending champion Arizona, the Utes stunned topranked North Carolina, 65-59, in the NCAA semifinals last night at the Alamodome.

Utah never trailed. The Utes nailed two three-pointers in the first 41 seconds, went up 16-2 and were still in command by 15 with 14 minutes remaining.

North Carolina (34-4) made its inevitable run and had a chance to get within one inside three minutes, but a wayward three by Shammond Williams epitomized the Tar Heels' offensive woes.

The next challenge for Utah (30-3) is Kentucky, in tomorrow's national championship game. It's the third straight final for the Wildcats, but the first for the Utes since 1944, when they won their only championship. Utah, by the way, was eliminated the last two years by Kentucky.

"We've got another game Monday, and I feel so bad that they can't go out and enjoy this one," said Majerus, after he worked his first game as a head coach in the Final Four. "I told them not to even give Kentucky a thought. I'll have something for them to go over tomorrow."

Kentucky understands one thing. It will face the toughest defensive team in the land.

North Carolina led the nation in shooting but Utah ranked No. 2 in field-goal percentage defense, and only the Utes lived up to their bill. The Tar Heels made a season-low 39.1 percent of their attempts, and they didn't hit a shot outside the paint in the first 24 minutes.

National Player of the Year Antawn Jamison was held to 14 points, eight below his average. Williams, who was 1-for-13 from the field in a semifinal loss to Arizona last year, went 2-for-12 this time. He was 1-for-9 beyond the arc, where North Carolina was 3 for 23.

Other than a box-and-one on Williams on some late possessions, the Utes played straight man-to-man. Majerus didn't go with a twist as he did against Arizona in the West Regional final, which turned on his triangle-and-two.

"They [the Utes] play great defense," said North Carolina forward Vince Carter, who was the only Tar Heel who didn't struggle, as he had 21 points. "They didn't back down, and we didn't expect them to. They were fighting the whole game."

Utah got another splendid performance from junior point guard Andre Miller, who added to his list of outstanding games in the tournament. This time he had 16 points, seven assists and 14 rebounds, two more than Jamison.

The Utes also got 16 points from senior center Michael Doleac, who was the primary defender on Jamison. Miller, Drew Hansen and sub David Jackson kept Williams and point guard Ed Cota scoreless in the first 22 minutes, and Utah was the clear winner on the bench, where Majerus outcoached Bill Guthridge.

North Carolina's loss in last year's semifinals turned out to be Dean Smith's last game as the Tar Heels' coach. They expected to follow Guthridge to a title game, but he rued a move he didn't make.

When Makhtar Ndiaye was called for his fourth personal foul less than two minutes into the second half, Guthridge made a sub, but it was an inexplicable one, pulling Carter, not his senior center. Two minutes later, Ndiaye was called for his fifth while grabbing Doleac, and North Carolina's lack of depth was severely exposed.

"I've done that before, and sometimes it's worked," Guthridge said of his decision to keep Ndiaye in the game. "I had a sub ready to go in when he got his fifth."

North Carolina still made a spirited run. The Tar Heels finally got a jump shot to fall with 16 minutes left, when Williams hit a three from the right wing. North Carolina added a 10-4 spurt, then used threes by Carter and Ademola Okulaja and a pull-up jumper by Cota to get within 57-55 with 1:59 left.

The Utes went on top early by attacking the Tar Heels, but they had gone more than six minutes without a basket, as they were exhausted from the work they were doing at the defensive end.

Miller took matters into his very secure hands, as he broke North Carolina's press and scored over Jamison with 2:01 left.

The fatigue showed on the other side too. Carter missed the front end of a one-and-one with 1:42 left. Utah finished off North Carolina at the free-throw line, where it made six of nine to cap another remarkable job for Majerus and his over-achievers.

Majerus has a malleable bunch. Doleac, their leading scorer and rebounder this season, missed the last nine minutes of the first half after his second foul. The Utes were up 14 when he left, and the lead dipped all the way to 13, at 35-22, when the second half started.

"That was the difference in the game," Okulaja said of the Utah start. "They had that cushion, and we couldn't overcome it. They came out ready to play at the buzzer and we didn't get started until seven or eight minutes into the game. It was like a marathon. They started with a one-kilometer lead and we were always chasing them."

The false starts didn't stop for North Carolina, which never scored more than two unanswered baskets.

Majerus said the first five minutes of the second half were crucial, and Utah had six leads of 15 points in that time frame.

The sweetest came with 17:20 left, when Hanno Mottola pump-faked Jamison into the air on the left wing, then drove baseline and dunked.

"I knew coming in we could beat these guys," Doleac said.

Men's Final 4

At San Antonio

Yesterday's semifinals

Kentucky 86, Stanford 85, OT

Utah 65, North Carolina 59

Tomorrow's championship

Kentucky (34-4) vs. Utah

(30-3), 9:18 p.m., chs. 13, 9

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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