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Utahns recall glory days at ‘the Dance’

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Former BYU player Mark Durrant played in the NCAA tourney in 1990.

Former BYU player Mark Durrant played in the NCAA tourney in 1990.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Right after the opening tipoff, BYU freshman Mark Durrant grabbed a pass from teammate Marty Haws and dashed in for a layup to give the No. 12-seeded Cougars an early 2-0 lead against No. 5-seeded Clemson in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Hartford, Conn.

It was March 15, 1990, and it was the first game of the tournament that season, which meant Durrant scored the first basket of the Big Dance.

"That's my claim to fame," he says now. "That was pretty exciting for me, thinking about the team we were playing and that the whole nation was watching it."

Nineteen years later, Durrant, who works as an attorney in Salt Lake City and also as a color commentator for BYU games on KSL radio, still remembers the highs and lows of that tournament experience, especially the gut-wrenching way the Cougars lost that game, 49-47, against a team with future NBA players. A missed layup in the game's waning seconds cost BYU a chance to advance.

"It really could have been one of the great moments in BYU basketball history," Durrant says. "It's hard to even think about it. Every year that goes by, it almost hurts more because I realize how close we were. If we had won that game, we were in position to win a couple more.

"When you're young, you're more resilient and you think about having more chances to do it again. But now, even 20 years later, it really eats at me. But most teams' seasons end in heartbreak in the tournament. Only one team gets the championship."

This is why players love competing in the NCAA Tournament and why fans love watching it. It's must-see, reality TV with drama, raw emotion and unforgettable moments. For the winning teams, it's otherworldly excitement. For the losers, it's an unforgiving finality.

Today, Durrant will be courtside at The Wachovia Center in Philadelphia to help call the action — in one of this year's first tournament games — when BYU faces Texas A&M in a first-round showdown. Durrant was also a member of the last BYU team to win an NCAA Tournament game in 1993.

A world away, former Utah star Britton Johnsen, who is playing professional basketball in Greece, is looking forward to watching the Utes play Arizona on Friday, though he'll have to do so via the Internet.

As a freshman, Johnsen played on that storied 1998 squad that marched to the NCAA championship game before falling to Utah's longtime nemesis, Kentucky.

"In the tournament, every minute is so crucial. You know that's the end of your season if you don't have a good game," Johnsen told the Deseret News in a phone interview this week. "I've been on both ends of the spectrum, where I went to the very last game my freshman year and in my junior year we got eliminated in (a first-round) game against Indiana (in 2002). So I can say I've seen both sides of it. If you make mistakes, it's over."

Utah State's Tony Brown secured a place in Aggie basketball lore in 2001, when he hit an eight-footer in the lane with 1.8 seconds remaining that forced overtime and resulted in a shocking NCAA first-round upset over No. 5 seeded Ohio State. It marked USU's first NCAA Tournament victory in 31 years. And the Aggies, who meet Marquette on Friday morning, haven't won a tournament game since.

Brown, who now works as an assistant superintendent at a Logan golf course, is still revered around Cache Valley for that shot.

"It was pretty special, not only for me, but for the university," he recalls. "A lot of people do still talk about it, seeing as how that was our last (NCAA Tournament) win. Still being in (Logan), I still see a lot of Aggie fans. It's funny because when it does come up, people tell me, 'I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when you hit that shot.' It's special to me."

What makes the tournament special, Durrant says, is the interest it generates around the country.

"When you go out there for practice and you have all kinds of fans and media in the stands for your one-hour practice, you know right off that this is very different from the regular season. You feel a lot of pressure. It can be overwhelming, especially when you play against a 'name' team, not to be awed by them, but just to go out and play. … Half the battle is believing you can beat those teams."

Durrant and his teammates believed they could knock off Clemson in 1990, and they nearly did. The Cougars led the Tigers by seven points with less than four minutes remaining. With seven seconds left, and BYU trailing by one, Haws received an alley-oop pass from Durrant, but Haws' potential game-winning layup fell off the rim.

"We had practiced the play all year long and had never run it. It was a pretty complicated play," Durrant recalls. "I had been in foul trouble for much of the game but I got sent back in to run this play. I lobbed it up there and it was a pretty good pass but it was a tough pass to handle on the run, going away from the ball. Marty's layup just rolled off the front of the rim. It's hard to even think about that, how close we were. We should have won that game."

Clemson's win over BYU was later vacated by the NCAA due to major rules violations by the Tigers. Not that it's any consolation for the Cougars.

Durrant tasted tournament success three years later when BYU defeated Southern Methodist in the first round in 1993. The Cougars have lost six straight first-round games since then.

What advice does Durrant have for the current BYU squad?

"You're going to think about these games for the rest of your life," he said. "Make sure you give every bit of effort that you can, so when you're 38, being a lawyer, thinking about it, that you don't have any regrets. … You wish you'd have won, but I think back on those times as great times."

Johnsen still reminisces about the Final Four.

"It's a memory I'll hold on to the rest of my life, especially the national championship game," he said. "I look back and when I was there, checking into the game in front of 40,000 fans at the Alamodome, I didn't know what I was doing. I was just playing basketball. Now I look back, I realize how unique the situation was."

Kentucky halted Utah's glorious run in the title tilt with a second-half comeback.

"I've got teammates who told me they don't watch the game because they're so sick about it," Johnsen says. "I've watched the game. I was a young kid and it was exciting to play in the national championship game. When I get together with (former teammates) Mike Doleac and Hanno Mottola in the summers, they tell me they can't stomach to watch the game."

The Wildcats have beaten the Utes in the NCAA tournament six times since 1993. "Somehow we always ended up being in their bracket," Johnsen laments.

Good news, Ute fans: Kentucky is playing in the NIT this year.

Utah schools' NCAA schedule*


10:30 a.m. Texas A&M vs. BYU


10:30 a.m. USU vs. Marquette

5:10 p.m. Arizona vs. Utah

All times MDT

E-MAIL: jeffc@desnews.com