Utes running on empty in 2nd half Once fatigue set in, Utah wilted, Kentucky ran off to victory

March 31, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO -- Utah had a four-point lead, having recovered from a Kentucky run with one of its own. But the Utes -- the same Runnin' Utes who had raced to an 11-point lead in the first half -- ran out of gas in last night's NCAA championship game here at the Alamodome.

Then they ran out of luck.

And time.

"We were four minutes away from winning the national championship," senior guard Drew Hansen said.

With a flurry of 10 straight missed shots, Utah's chance for the school's first national championship disappeared in a 78-69 defeat to the Wildcats. Some, like Hansen, left the court with tears in their eyes. Others, like Hanno Mottola, simply waved to the crowd.

And then there was coach Rick Majerus, his tongue wagging, his eyes pointed at the floor.

"I don't have a fall-back goal of being No. 2," he said. "We'll feel badly for quite a while. But we got beat by a better basketball team tonight."

While players like Michael Doleac and Andre Miller didn't want to point to their lack of stamina as the reason for Utah's 64-60 lead with 5: 43 left turning into a 70-64 deficit, Majerus and some of his other players knew what seemed obvious to those watching.

The jump shots that were falling in the first 35 minutes began falling short, a sign of tired legs.

"I think Mike wore down," Majerus said of Doleac, who scored 12 of his 15 points in the first half and missed his last five shots. "[Jamaal] Magliore did a good job, and [Nazr] Mohammed, and they played him two-on-one. We don't have a body. We don't have an athletic body aside from Doleac. I probably should have cultivated the bench more."

As for Miller, who finished with 16 points, six rebounds and five assists, but also made eight of his team's 18 turnovers, "I think he got tired, too."

Hansen, playing with a strained muscle in his back, said fatigue played a part in his allowing reserve guard Cameron Mills to hit the three-point shot that started Kentucky's comeback, pulling the Wildcats to 64-63.

"I made the biggest defensive mistake of my life," Hansen said. "I let a guy go in and shoot a three-pointer and get off a three-point shot. All due respect to Mills, he's a great outside shooter, but he doesn't put it on the floor very well and I didn't make him put it on the floor. It ended up costing us big-time."

Said forward Alex Jensen: "I thought it [fatigue] was definitely a factor. They played a lot of people and their bench did a great xTC job. At the end, I thought there were some defensive stops on which we were pretty tired."

In a tournament filled with upsets, these Cinderellas with size-15 feet came the closest to fulfilling the dreams of them all. The Utes had crushed top-seeded Arizona in the West Regional final, had upset North Carolina here in the semifinals and had taken an 11-point lead on Kentucky.

But the defensive rebounding domination of the first half -- the Utes out-rebounded the Wildcats, 24-6, and led 41-31 at halftime -- also disappeared in the second half.

"I'm not sure we got worn out," Doleac said . "I was tired, but you are playing for the national championship. I think maybe you can push your way through that. Maybe that was it. I mean, they made some tough shots and we didn't make them."

Said Miller: "I got a little winded, but we had some timeouts to get our second wind. I just think we missed some shots."

There was no second-guessing themselves in the locker room. But the Utes knew that while other teams get to the Final Four often, this might have been a once-in-a-generation experience. Doleac and Hansen will graduate and Miller, a fourth-year junior, could make himself available to the NBA.

The Utes also might lose three underclassmen to Mormon missions, the most important being freshman Britton Johnsen. And, of course, there's Majerus, who has been rumored to be a sneaker contract away from taking the job at Arizona State. And, if not there, maybe to the NBA.

Asked last night if he plans to remain in Utah, Majerus showed that his sense of humor was still very much intact.

"We're there tomorrow," he said.

Jensen put things in perspective.

"Most everyone agrees this is the best Utah team ever," he said. "A program like Utah plays in a Final Four once every 32 years and has never played for the national championship. That's what makes a loss like this tough because we're not sure we'll ever be back."

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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