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Luhm: Ute win over Arizona was Rick Majerus' masterpiece

Published December 8, 2012 5:24 pm

College basketball • Utes shocked with upset of Arizona.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah 76, Arizona 51.

It was Rick Majerus' masterpiece.

His Mona Lisa.

The day after Majerus' funeral in Milwaukee, remembering the Utes' shocking victory over the Wildcats in the Elite Eight of the 1998 NCAA Tournament seems like a fitting eulogy.

The game was played in Anaheim, only a few miles from where Majerus died of heart failure on Dec. 1.

Defending national champion Arizona had won 23 of its previous 24 games. The only loss was a one-pointer at USC in the next-to-last game of the regular season.

The Wildcats breezed into the West Regional finals as heavy favorites to end Utah's tournament run, which had included close wins over Arkansas (75-69) and West Virginia (65-62).

After beating the Mountaineers, Majerus said, "It was a hard-fought win, but it was not an artistic win."

The artistry came two days later.

The Utes did not seem to match up well with the Wildcats, who were led by Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and Michael Dickerson.

Bibby, a future No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft, was coming off a 27-point performance in Arizona's 87-79 win over Maryland in the regional semifinals.

"We really needed to take Bibby out of the game," Majerus said later.

To facilitate the plan, he told his players they would employ their "66" defense ­— a gimmicky triangle-and-two designed to swarm Bibby and, to a lesser extent, Simon.

The bad news: Dickerson would get some open shots.

Immediately, everyone wondered if Majerus had gotten ahold of some bad pizza.

"We practiced it about 20 minutes all year," said forward Hanno Mottola.

Freshman David Jackson, who a year later transferred out of the program, was also apprehensive.

"Coach told us we were going to use '66,' and everybody looked around," he said. "It was like, 'Hey coach, we don't know about this.' But later he said, 'Do you guys want to go man?' And, in unison, everybody said, 'No.' "

Senior Drew Hansen said, "The thing I wondered about was leaving Dickerson open. I said, 'Is that a good idea?' But coach said he was making 21 percent of his 3s in the tournament, so we decided to make that choice."

On the game's first possession, Dickerson got an open 15-footer. The ball rimmed out. Even though Utah missed nine of its first 10 shots, the Wildcats couldn't score, either.

The Utes slowly built a 29-20 halftime lead. It was 47-25 with 14 minutes remaining.

"The man-to-man is our staple," Majerus said. "But after watching Arizona, I thought we had to do a couple of little things. ... I thought we would visit an old friend."

Majerus' defense limited Bibby to seven points, with three coming in the final moments.

"This is a greatest feeling I've ever had," said Utah freshman Britton Johnsen. "It's the greatest moment of my life."