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March badness: Utes' season ends with an early exit from NIT

Memphis 71, Utah 62

The Utah basketball team won't be leaving for New York in a couple of weeks or anywhere else for that matter, following a pitiful performance Tuesday night in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.

Utah's March badness continued in a 71-62 loss to a mediocre Memphis team that hadn't even beaten a top 100 team all season until defeating the Utes.

With their third loss in four games since March 1 on the heels of an unbeaten February, the Utes concluded their tumultuous season with a 19-12 record.

"That was not a nice way to end the season," said Dick Hunsaker after his final game as acting Ute coach in place of Rick Majerus. "Our guys wanted to be on spring break. They had no desire, no energy, no cohesiveness. There was too much individual play on offense, and they didn't get back in transition on the defensive end. It was a tough way to end what has been a terrific second half of the season, lacking that much intensity and emotion."

That's a rough assessment of the team, but the Ute players didn't disagree with their coach afterward. They seemed disgusted with their effort, which included all 10 players who played Tuesday night, although they didn't have an explanation for it.

"Our team didn't look like it wanted to play tonight," said Britton Johnsen, who led the Utes with 15 points. "It's very disappointing. (Coach Hunsaker) did everything to prepare us. It's just the players' fault. We didn't come out with enough energy."

"They played harder than us," said Chris Burgess. "Maybe guys looked ahead and didn't take Memphis seriously. Whatever it was it's frustrating that we didn't start playing hard with any passion and emotion until that one run in the second half."

"Maybe we were all a little lax, more than we should have been," said Nick Jacobson. "But a game's a game to us and that's the way it should have been. The way we came out, Memphis jumped all over us. I don't know. . . . "

The Utes' strength is supposed to be inside, but they had no answer for the Tigers' inside players. Six-foot-11 Earl Barron scored 18 points, his second-highest total of the season, while 6-10 Kelly Wise scored 13 before fouling out and 6-9 Shamel Jones added 10 points off the bench.

First-year Memphis coach John Calipari praised his kids for playing hard, saying "you could see they wanted their season to continue."

The Tigers seemed to be at a disadvantage in every way after having to travel for several hours from Memphis to Dallas to Salt Lake and arriving late Monday evening. The Tiger players made a visit to the Huntsman Center to shoot some foul shots and get acquainted with the arena and also received some advice from their coach.

"I told them the altitude wouldn't affect them, because they were playing indoors," he said with a smile.

It looked more like the altitude affected the Utes, who appeared lethargic right from the start, even more so than in their first-round loss to New Mexico last week in the Mountain West Conference tournament.

They fell behind 10-2 and 22-8 midway though the first half, which was nearly the same score the Utes trailed in the earlier game against Memphis at the Puerto Rico Shootout in November. The Utes came back to win that game by three, so the players and fans still held out hope the Utes would get it in gear this time around.

Late in the first half, they pulled within five at 28-23, only to see the Tigers run off seven straight points and take a 40-28 lead into the locker room

A technical foul on Hunsaker midway through the second half seemed to light a fire under the Utes, who went on a 15-7 run to get within 56-52 with 5:30 left. After Burgess blocked Barron's shot, the Utes had a chance to cut the lead even further.

But Jeff Johnsen's pass was intercepted by Shannon Forman, who took it all the way and was fouled by Johnsen for a three-point play.

Utah actually cut the lead to four again when Phil Cullen sank a 3-pointer, but the Utes failed on their next five possessions and soon the disappointed Ute fans were streaming up the aisles.

Perhaps nothing exemplified the Utes' lack of desire more than a play early in the second half when the Utes trailed by 10. Forman missed a shot from the left angle and the ball fell to the floor in the middle of four Ute players, who acted like they were stuck in quicksand as UM's Marcus Moody stepped in to tip the ball to Wise, who made an easy dunk.

"To come out of the locker room, 90 seconds into the second half and have that loose ball bounce around while everybody watches, and nobody goes and gets it . . . I did not see our kids play with any competitive spirit," Hunsaker said.

The Tigers outrebounded the Utes 39 to 32, and the Utes committed 18 turnovers, including six by Jeff Johnsen and five by Travis Spivey, who had a miserable outing with no points and just two assists.

Memphis hadn't been to a postseason tournament in three years since an NIT appearance in 1998 and hadn't won a postseason game since the 1995 NCAA tournament when it advanced to the Sweet 16. Now Memphis will await the winner of tonight's UTEP-McNeese State game, probably in Memphis next week.

The Utes had hoped to be hosting the winner of that game next week, but after drawing just 4,920 Tuesday, albeit on very short notice, they may not have had the chance to host another game anyway.

For Hunsaker, who was named MWC coach of the year by both the coaches and media, his run as Ute coach is officially over.

"As soon as we leave this room, this is coach Majerus' team," he said.

Hunsaker is expected to look for a Division I coaching job, but if nothing materializes, he should be back with the Utes next year.

The Utes should have a better season in 2001-2002 with all of their players returning, except senior center Nate Althoff and freshman guard Marc Jackson, who is expected to leave on a church mission.