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Jensen says ’98 loss is still too painful to watch

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It's been nine years since the University of Utah lost to Kentucky in the national championship game, and Alex Jensen still can't bring himself to watch the videotape.

He's watched video of the other NCAA tournament games from the Utes' surprising run to the title game in 1998.

But never the championship game.

"That's one game I try not to think about," said Jensen, speaking by phone from his apartment in Ankara, Turkey, where he plays professional basketball. "I don't want to watch it. Then I'll realize again how close we were, and I don't want to start thinking about that again for the next five months."

He thinks about it anyway this time of year when the NCAA tournament takes center stage. Tonight, Florida and Ohio State will play for the national championship, just as the Utes did nearly a decade ago.

"We were so close," says Jensen several times during the conversation.

The Utes led 41-31 at halftime.

They stretched their lead to 45-33 early in the second half.

Jensen couldn't help but think about the possibilities as the game progressed. "It crossed my mind — we could win this," he recalls. "The whole thing was pretty surreal. It still is now."

The Utes ran out of gas down the stretch, missing 10 straight shots and giving up the lead for good with five minutes left in the game, ultimately losing 78-69, a score that doesn't reflect how close the contest was.

When he does allow his mind to wander to recollections of the game, Jensen remembers one play in which Kentucky's Cameron Mills eluded defender Drew Hansen and sank a 3-point shot from the corner during the Wildcats' rally.

"That was one of the bigger plays," says Jensen. "What people didn't know was that Drew Hansen had a bad back in that game, and usually he would have gotten there and defended that shot. Drew talked about that with me once."

He also remembers having his own shot blocked in the second half. "There are a lot of things like that that I remember," he says.

Like Jensen and, presumably, his teammates, Rick Majerus also tortured himself with thoughts of the game. He liked to say that he could describe every play of the game down the stretch.

"I've relived it night after night," he said in March 1999. "I can tell you everything that went wrong. We were so close. If we were to win the championship this year, I'd still remember the Kentucky game until I draw my last breath."

The 1998 run to the championship exceeded everyone's expectations. For his part, Jensen told friends his dream was to play in the Sweet 16, but the Utes kept winning, beating San Francisco, Arkansas, West Virginia and defending national champion Arizona to advance to their first Final Four in 32 years. They then defeated powerhouse North Carolina (with Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison) to advance to the championship game.

"Then to get so close," says Jensen, who notes that he slept only a few hours the night before the game. "In the locker room after the game everyone was just bawling. The emotion of the past few weeks came crashing down."

Jensen says he has experienced nothing to match that game since then, although he has continued his basketball career. After brief stops with pro teams in Spain and Japan, as well as Yakima of the CBA, he has played six years with four teams in Turkey. He plays overseas because the money is good — more than he could earn with his finance degree in the United States, he says — and because it provides an opportunity to play the game he loves, even though it means spending nine months a year out of the country.

But that championship season has been a tough act to follow. "That was the pinnacle of my career, by far," says Jensen. "It's made it hard to adjust. You expect that kind of energy (in the pros) and then it turns into a job, clocking in and clocking out. Just the excitement of playing in front of 30,000 fans with your best friends; there's nothing quite like it."

Many of his teammates are still pursuing basketball careers as well. Mike Doleac plays for the Miami Heat and won an NBA championship ring last year as Shaquille O'Neal's backup. He trains with Jensen in the summer. Andre Miller plays for the Philadelphia 76ers. Hanno Mottola and Britton Johnsen play for professional teams in Lithuania and France, respectively.

Two other key players from that team are out of basketball. Trace Caton is in medical school, and Hansen is a lawyer in California.

"So much had to go right for us to get to the championship," says Jensen, the ultimate role player for the Utes that year and always a Majerus favorite. "It's more difficult for Utah to get there than a UCLA or Kentucky. We had the perfect coach for the perfect group of guys. Everybody was coachable and we were a pretty smart group."

He doesn't know if he'll ever be able to watch a replay of that game. It's difficult enough when March Madness rolls around each year.

"Whenever this time of year comes, I think back to it," he says. "It's hard to believe how long ago it was now."

E-mail: drob@desnews.com