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So much for the happy ending: Utes get Kentucky-fried again

HELP, America. Feel our pain. Utah went to work today with eyes rimmed in Ute red and feeling Kentucky blue.

This is too much. This cannot be. The Utes - destiny's team - lost the national championship to - not them again - the Kentucky Wildcats, and an entire state is in mourning. The score? You had to ask. 78-69.March Sadness.

Call Dr. Laura; we need to talk. Say it didn't happen to us again. First, the Jazz; now this. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

The Utes' magical three-week run wasn't supposed to end like this. The Utes had one foot in the winner's circle Monday night - they led by a dozen points - and then they lost their nerve, their shooting touch and the chance of a lifetime. They lost to cursed, blasted * & % $ Kentucky.

We'll never eat at the Colonel's again.

We'll never bet on race horses.

We'll pull the bluegrass from our yards.

Fate, you are too cruel. You did us wrong again. If it isn't the Bulls, it's the Wildcats.

It was the Utes' turn. What do the Wildcats know of persevering? Of long suffering? They think the Final Four is like the Olympics - they go every four years. They've got seven championships, two in three years.

What do they need another trophy for - a paperweight?

"No. 1 for life!" one Wildcat yelled in the hallway as he ran to the locker room.

Somebody punch him.

Utes to Final Four: See you in another 32 years.

Kentucky has beaten Utah in the NCAA tournament three years in a row - and four times in the past six years - but this was the unkindest defeat of them all. There was just no avoiding a rematch. It was inevitable. When the tournament pairings were released three weeks ago, the first thing Mike Doleac did was look to see where the Utes would meet Kentucky. And there it was: the national championship.

"We want a rematch with Kentucky," he had said. No, they didn't.

Tell us Monday's game was only a bad dream. Tell us that Cameron Mills, a career scrub, didn't really throw in two three-point shots that cut through the Utes' heart like a dagger. Tell us that Scott Padgett, the guy Ute coach Rick Majerus kicked off the national team last summer, didn't really score 17 points. Pa-lease tell us that Heshimu Evans, whoever he is, didn't toss in 10 points.

Tell us that Utah didn't give it away. "We were five minutes away from a national championship," said Drew Hansen, his eyes welling with tears.

Everything was going the Utes way. With 600 million people watching them, including 40,509 spectators in the Alamodome, the Utes took command. They led 40-30 before Kentucky made a shot longer than seven feet. They outrebounded Kentucky 24-6 in the first half. They led by 10 points at halftime. "I thought we had it," said Britton Johnsen, and so it seemed. No team had ever come back from that deficit to win the championship game.

The Utes stretched their lead to a dozen points to start the second half, and Ute fans decked in crimson rocked the dome. It was infectious. An usher - a local usher with no ties to the school, except maybe her red uniform jacket - joined the Ute cheerleaders in a cheer. Everyone was jumping on the bandwagon.

And then the magic was gone. It was as if somebody pulled a plug. It was as if the clock had struck midnight. Just like that . . . pffft, gone. Nothing.

Suddenly, Hanno Mottola couldn't hit a three-point bucket from the top of the key with no one within six feet of him. Suddenly, Michael Doleac couldn't elude the swarming Wildcats. Suddenly, Drew Hansen got a bad case of steel elbow on a two-foot dink shot. Suddenly, Andre Miller's flights to the basket ends ended with duds.

Coach Rick Majerus called plays for Miller, as he had throughout the tournament. The plays worked - they sprung Miller - but his shots refused to fall. One shot whirled around the rim and then out. Another couldn't climb over the front of the rim. Another was blocked.

The Utes made only three field goals in the last 11:51 of play, one of them coming in the final seconds when it no longer mattered. They missed 10 straight shots. With just under five minutes to go the Wildcats took the lead for good.

The Utes had been here before. They lost only three games this season, but in each one of them they led by at least 10 points. They suffered a similar lapse against West Virginia earlier in the tournament, going the last nine minutes without a field goal, but survived anyway. But not this time.

Watching from the bench, the Ute coaches noted the telltale signs of fatigue just as the game turned. The Utes weren't moving as sharply on offense. They weren't cutting to the basket. They weren't contesting shots.

"But what do you do?" asked assistant coach Jeff Judkins. "You can't sub."

"Andre is in that left corner there and he's like a punch-drunk fighter," said Majerus. "He's standing on his last legs, but we don't get here without him."

Majerus nevertheless second guessed himself afterward. He wondered if he could've staved off fatigue with more substitution. "I probably should have cultivated the bench more," he said. " . . . They just beat us down because, you know, I've got to do a better job. I didn't do a good job with - we try awful hard, our staff does."

Afterward, the Utes trudged the long walk to the locker room, heads bowed, staring at the floor, eyes red. The tears flowed. "Coach said it would be tough," said Hansen, biting his lip. "I didn't think it would be this tough. I wish I could still play."

Sitting on a chair, Mottola, his sad brown eyes sadder, stared straight ahead. "We are the No. 1B team in the country," he said in his Schwarznegger monotone. "Kentucky is 1A."

He paused and sighed. "Hopefully," he said wistfully, "we'll get home and think about spring and school again."