May 1, 1998
It was March 22 and the fever was spreading fast. It had been spawned the afternoon before in Southern California and quickly spread to the Salt Lake Valley. Before that Sunday was done, however, the entire state would be infected. It was a fever that had not been seen in the valley for a long time, 32 years to be exact. It was caused not by a long dormant strain of bacteria, but by 15 young men led by a basketball genius of a coach. "Final Four Fever" had taken the state by storm and would soon infect a good portion of the country, including a city in Texas that was previously known for good "Tex Mex" food and a fort called the Alamo. Rick Majerus and his Runnin' Utes were the carriers of the fever strain, a strain that had been released with a bang in a "Pond" in Anaheim, California. The Utes 76-51 victory over the defending national champion Arizona Wildcats, sent them to San Antonio for Utah's first "Final Four" appearance since 1966. This was a Runnin' Ute team that wasn't supposed to be there. It was a team that started the season looking to replace consensus All-American Keith Van Horn, the number two pick in the NBA draft. However, this Ute team quickly found its' own identity, starting the season with a school-record 18 straight wins, not tasting the sting of defeat until February. By that time the Utes were mainstays in the pollsters top five, climbing as high as second. The Utes cruised to their second straight WAC Mountain Division title with a 12-2 conference mark.
A small bump in the road occurred in the WAC Tournament when the Utes were upset in the quarterfinal game by UNLV on it's home floor. A loss that at the time was hard to take, but a loss that may have refocused the team for their NCAA stretch drive. That drive began in Boise as the Utes were seeded third in the West Region and faced a first round matchup with San Francisco. The Dons, although sporting a great NCAA hoop tradition, were no match for the rededicated Utes. Michael Doleac led the way with 27 points and Utah cruised to an 85-68 victory. Second round opponent Arkansas was predicted by some as the team to knock Utah out of the tournament. The Razorbacks put up a fight but the Utes, led by Andre Miller's career-high 28 points, came away with a 75-69 victory to advance to the West Regional semifinals in Anaheim. It was the third straight trip for Utah to the NCAA "Sweet 16" making them one of only three programs in the nation to accomplish that feat the last three years. West Virginia was the Utes semifinal opponent. The Mountaineers had made it to Anaheim by hitting a last second shot to upset second seeded Cincinnati. No last second miracles were forthcoming against the Utes as Doleac was again on fire scoring 25 points and hitting a pair of free throws with seven seconds left in the game to ice the Utes 65-62 win. For the second year in a row Utah had made it to the Regional Championship game, a step away from the promised land, but standing in the way was defending national champion Arizona. No one gave the Utes much of a chance. No one that is, except the Utes themselves.
They knew it was their time, or as the Wildcats found out it was Miller's time. Andre was the man for the Utes this day scoring 18 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and passing for 13 assists to rack up the first triple double in NCAA play since Magic Johnson accomplished that feat almost 20 years ago. Utah led almost from the outset holding a nine point margin at the break. The second half was all Utes, they ran to a 76-51 victory. Miller was joined by Doleac, Hanno Mottola, Alex Jensen and David Jackson in double figures. Both Doleac and Jensen had double-doubles in points and rebounds. As had been the case all season, the Ute defense stepped up holding Arizona to just 28 percent shooting from the field. With the Arizona win the Utes became not only Utah's team but almost everyone else's as well. Their Cinderella story had captured the hearts of the nation and now the state was known for more than Mormons, the Jazz and a big lake with salt in it. It wasn't just the basketball ability of the Utes that drew fans in. These players were prototype student-athletes and really nice guys. Doleac and Drew Hansen were named Academic All-Americans and Hansen had also been a Rhodes Scholar candidate. All total, the Utes put 11 guys on the honor roll fall quarter and nine players on during winter term. It's not often that a team so good on the court is also just as good in the classroom. And now there they were, those student-athletes who played team basketball, in the Final Four joined by North Carolina, Stanford and Kentucky.
First up for the Utes, the Tar Heels in the national semifinals. Despite being the underdogs the Utes weren't bothered by the Tar Heel mystique. Utah jumped out early and led 35-22 at the half. The Tar Heel run came in the second half, as you knew it would, but the Utes were ready, withstood the UNC charge and took a 65-59 victory. Utah was in the NCAA Championship game for the first time since 1944. Utah's opponent in the championship game, Kentucky. Utah jumped out to an early lead in the championship game, taking a 10 point lead into the locker room on the strength of Doleac's 12 first half points. Early in the second half Utah increased it's lead to 12 points but the Wildcats fought back managing to capture a 78-69 victory.
The loss to Kentucky was disappointing, but the accomplishments of this Ute team will become legendary. Utah finished the season with a 30-4 record, tying the 1990-91 squad for the most wins in school history. Doleac and Hansen not only set a school record by playing in 15 NCAA games during their careers, they also posted a 114-21 record during their four years together at Utah. It was also estimated that the team received $18 million dollars worth of publicity from their run through the tournament. The 1998 NCAA Tournament was a great ride for everyone from the players and coaches to the fans. Even though the Utes fell five minutes short of winning the national championship, the experience was great. The 1997-98 Runnin' Utes will always be remembered as the team that brought everyone to a "fever pitch."