‘Pretty magical’: How the Utes found themselves at center stage 20 years ago

SALT LAKE CITY — While you might say it was 20 years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play, you can also say it was 20 years ago that the University of Utah basketball team came to play, embarking on its own Magical Mystery Tour that took the Utes all the way to the NCAA championship game.

OK, excuse the Beatles’ references, but that NCAA run in March 1998 indeed was a magical time for the Utah basketball team.

It began with a regular season that saw the Utes win 25 games and lose only two. It included a disheartening defeat in their first game of the WAC Tournament, which according to the players turned out to be the “best thing” that could have happened to the Utes. Then came the ride through the NCAA Tournament with close wins over lower-seeded teams and shocking wins over two No. 1 seeds.

Finally came the disappointing defeat in the final to the Utes’ old nemesis, Kentucky, when the Utes simply ran out of gas and saw their championship dreams disappear into the rafters of the Alamodome in San Antonio.

In a different era with far fewer teams and games to win, Utah had won the 1944 NCAA championship. But the three-week, six-game journey by the Runnin’ Utes was the best NCAA performance by Utah or any school from the Beehive State.

To a man, Ute players said it was a special group that may not have been the most talented, but came together under their mercurial coach Rick Majerus.

“Just the group of guys we had, it was a good fit,” said Alex Jensen. “It’s hard to get that any more. It’s the most fun I think any of us had playing basketball.”

Michael Doleac said it was the highlight of his basketball career, topping the NBA championship he won with the Miami Heat.

“The thing that stands out is the guys worked so hard with one common goal,” said David Jackson, a reserve guard. “I’ve never been around a group of guys that close. It was really a tight-knit group. It was really a lot of fun.”

“It was pretty magical,” said Hanno Mottola.

Early success

Even though the Utes were coming off an Elite Eight appearance, not much was expected in the 1997-98 season. The Utes had lost All-American Keith Van Horn to the NBA and weren’t even picked to win the Western Athletic Conference after three straight championships.

“It’s a little different out here without No. 44,” said Majerus before the season, referring to Van Horn. “No one really seems to understand this is not a veteran team. We have three guys who have had unbelievable success and 10 guys who haven’t had any success.”

As usual in the Majerus regime, the Utes didn’t have a tough preseason schedule with the likes of Azusa Pacific, Loyola Marymount, Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine on the slate, games the Utes won by an average of 31 points.

There were the usual in-state opponents, Utah State, Weber State and Southern Utah, which the …read more

Source:: Deseret News – Top stories


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