Utah 76, Arizona 51
Mar. 22, 1998
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) _ It was the mismatch and blowout everyone anticipated, from the team no one expected.
Defending NCAA champion Arizona, stymied by a combination of Utah's stifling defense and its own horrendous 28 percent shooting, was stunned 76-51 by the third-seeded Utes in Saturday's West Regional championship.
The Utes, rarely mentioned on the same level as the nation's college basketball powers, handed the Wildcats their worst postseason loss ever. Kentucky beat them by 24 points in the 1946 National Invitation Tournament.
``It's unbelievable,'' sophomore Hanno Mottola said. ``They're the number one team in the West, but not anymore.''
Andre Miller, called the second-best point guard in the West by coach Rick Majerus, had a triple-double in outplaying the best, Arizona's Mike Bibby. The junior from Los Angeles had 18 points and career-highs of 14 rebounds and 13 assists with just three turnovers.
``We were the underdogs and we were barking,'' Miller said.
The Utes (29-3) are headed to San Antonio for their first Final Four in 32 years. They finished fourth in 1966 and won the NCAA title in 1944 when just eight teams played.
``I'm just overwhelmed,'' said Majerus, who last made the Final Four in 1977 as a Marquette assistant. ``I never thought I'd get there again. I just rolled these guys in.''
The Wildcats (30-5), trying to become the first repeat champions since Duke in 1991-92, never had any momentum from the opening tip.
``We beat them, badly,'' Utah center Michael Doleac said. ``We played well, we kept attacking. It doesn't feel any better.''
Famed for an ability to knock teams out with massive scoring spurts, the Wildcats couldn't get into their run-and-gun offense against Utah's slower tempo. Instead, the Utes put together the game's three big surges, including a 12-2 run early in the second half that had Arizona down 18 points.
``They took us apart and played hard, just like we did to other teams during the season,'' Bibby said. ``They made it a point at the beginning to come at us and never stopped.''
The Wildcats came in with just one loss in their last 24 games, averaging an NBA-like 91.9 points. They had never scored less than 70 this season, with Bibby, Miles Simon and Michael Dickerson accounting for 58 percent of their points.
``I didn't ever think we could lose by that many points, even to an NBA team,'' said Dickerson, a senior. ``I feel like I'm dreaming. I want to wake up tomorrow and go to practice.''
But Utah's defense silenced Arizona's big scoring guns, who were a combined 6 of 36 shooting.
The Utes did it playing a triangle-and-2 defense, with two defenders at the top of the key, one in the middle and two on the baseline cutting off Arizona's 3-point shooters, who were 4 of 22.
``It was something that we knew was going to save us or kill us,'' Mottola said of the defense. ``I'll tell you what, their heads were spinning.''
Bibby, the playmaker with a prowess for getting the ball into his teammates' hands, had one assist, no 3-pointers on seven attempts and seven points. Simon and Dickerson had six points each. Sixth-man Jason Terry led Arizona with 16 points.
Majerus, who draws more attention for his food fetish, celebrated by climbing a ladder and ripping the net off with his beefy hand. He waved it in the direction of Utah's delirious fans. He shared a joyous post-game phone call with his widowed mother.
``If we could take Bibby out of the game that would be the key. These guys executed it beautifully,'' he said. ``Man-to-man is our staple. I just felt we had to do some little things.''
Rarely given their due because they play in the Western Athletic Conference, the Utes overcame the Wildcats with a total team effort.
``Everyone's on cloud nine right now,'' said Alex Jensen, who had 11 points and 10 rebounds. ``For (two) seniors, it's just another page for a storybook ending.''
Miller constantly attacked Arizona's defense, driving the lane or dishing off to Michael Doleac (16 points, 11 rebounds) and Hanno Mottola (14 points), who make up a Utah frontline that controlled the boards, 49-34.
The Wildcats barely scored a point a minute in the first half when they were held to 20, their lowest in two seasons. Dickerson's three airballs were indicative of Arizona's 27 percent halftime shooting, its worst of the season.
``They threw everything at us, triangle-and-2, box-and-1 and man-to-man,'' Dickerson said. ``I felt we could come back and win until the three-minute mark. I was expecting to make one of our runs.''
For the game, the Wildcats were 17 of 60 shooting, joining the 35 other teams that failed to shoot 50 percent against Utah this season. Anytime they managed two straight baskets, the Utes cut them off.
Doleac went to the bench moments into a 15-3 run that put the Utes ahead 17-8 early. They didn't need their big man as Miller ran straight at Arizona's defense, even scoring past two taller defenders underneath for six points in the run.
Utah led by nine at halftime, leaving fans wondering if Arizona was poised for one of its vaunted scoring runs.
Mottola, the sophomore from Finland, had 10 of Utah's first 16 points as the Utes outscored Arizona 12-2 for a 45-27 lead.
The Wildcats couldn't even shoot free throws. Bennett Davison hit one of two, then Simon missed two, so even Terry's 3-pointer couldn't get them closer than 47-33 with 11:10 remaining.
The damage grew worse. Twice the Utes led by 28 points in the final two minutes when Arizona had already sputtered into oblivion.
``They came out and whipped us,'' Bibby said. ``We couldn't stop them.''