|Keith Van Horn|
They were 9:40 away from the promised land. Drew Hansen had just hit a three-pointer to knot the score at 43 all in the West Regional Championship game in San Jose and the Runnin' Utes were running--all the way to the "Final Four" in Indianapolis. Fate, however, sometimes has a way of stepping in and in this case, fate was wearing a Kentucky Wildcats uniform. Yes, those same Kentucky Wildcats, the ones who eliminated the Utes from the "Sweet 16" in 1996, were again the culprits as they took control of the rest of the game and went on to knock the Utes out of their chance for "Final Four" glory.
For Utah it was a disappointing end to a great season, but even the loss to Kentucky could not put a damper on what this Ute team accomplished. The 1996-97 Runnin' Utes finished the season with a 29-4 record (the second most wins in school history), captured their third straight Western Athletic Conference title (a first in school history), won the WAC Tournament and the regular-season WAC Mountain Division title with a 15-1 mark and finished ranked second in the country in the final regular season Associated Press and CNN/USA Today polls. They also received a number two seed in the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA second seed and the final number two ranking are both the highest in school history.
The end of the season also marks the end of the career of Keith Van Horn, the greatest player to ever play at the University of Utah. Van Horn, who was the second pick in this summers NBA Draft, finished his career as the leading scorer in school and Western Athletic Conference history with a total of 2,542 points, the only person to score over 2,500 points in conference history. He also finished second in school history in career rebounds with 1,074 boards. Van Horn is the first Ute since Billy McGill in 1962 to be named a consensus first team All-American. He was a finalist for all three national player of the year awards and is the only three-time WAC Player of the Year in conference history. Keith is also only the second player in WAC history to be named first team all-WAC four years. During Van Horn's years at the "U" the Utes won 98 games, made three appearances in the NCAA Tournament, advancing once to the "Sweet 16" and once to the "Elite Eight," and won three WAC Championships. Since 1990 the Utes have claimed five WAC basketball crowns.
Van Horn was not the only Ute to garner post-season honors this season. Junior, Michael Doleac was named first team all-WAC and first team all-District by both the media and the coaches. He was also named to the all-WAC defensive team and became the 23rd 1,000 point scorer in school history with 1,003 points in three seasons. Doleac and Hansen were also named to the GTE Academic all-District team. Senior Ben Caton provided tremendous leadership for the team and also joined Doleac on the conference all-defensive team as did Andre Miller who finishes his junior season with 358 assists, eighth best on the career list.
The Utes had four freshmen who contributed to their success this season and will join Doleac, Miller and Hansen as the backbone of next year's team. Hanno Mottola, who gave the Utes some great inside minutes this year was named to the WAC all-Newcomer team. David Jackson and Jeff Johnsen showed they could do it at both ends of the court while Jordie McTavish made great strides at the point. Sophomore Ashante Johnson, also in his first year of college basketball, showed some talent as well.
The '96-'97 Utes were not about just individual players, they were about a team--a team that played outstanding defense. The Utes finished the year as one of the top defensive teams in the nation as well as the WAC, leading the conference in field goal percentage defense (.382) and scoring defense (61.7). This was a team that played great team defense, frustrating many an opponent. It was a team that had great chemistry, that liked playing basketball and liked being together. In short it was a team that had fun. The 1996-97 Runnin' Utes averaged over 14,000 fans per game (14th in the nation) in the Huntsman Center, a great tribute to a team that will go down as one of the greatest in Ute hoop history.