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Utah Counting on Sweeter 16 This Time

West Regional: After 77-58 victory over UNC Charlotte, things looking up.

March 17, 1997|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TUCSON — The last trip was mostly loads of fun, but Utah didn't expect too much because NCAA tournament reality is not lost on this bunch.

So when Kentucky ran Utah out of last season's Sweet 16, Coach Rick Majerus' squad went home content. This time, the Utes won't settle for just getting there.

Utah earned its second consecutive Sweet 16 trip with an impressive 77-58 victory over North Carolina Charlotte on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA West Regional before 11,916 at the McKale Center. Utah will play Stanford in the regional semifinals Thursday at San Jose.

"It was a different feeling for us last year," said Utah center Michael Doleac, who had 18 points and seven rebounds Sunday. "The last time, we were just excited to make it and to be a part of the whole experience. We think our chances are pretty good this time."

And having Keith Van Horn doesn't hurt either.

Van Horn played the inside-outside game as he does so well, scoring a game-high 27 points with eight rebounds. Van Horn made 10 of 18 shots from the field in leading the second-seeded Utes (28-3) to their 13 straight victory and 20th in 21 games.

"I was happy with how Keith played, but I was also happy with how we played as a team," said Majerus, who has led Utah to the Sweet 16 three times during his eight seasons in Salt Lake City. "This was a nice win for us and it should give us some momentum and confidence during the next round.

With Doleac shutting off the lane and Van Horn scoring inside, Utah led by as many as 15 points in the first half. Van Horn wasn't connecting on his three-point shots but still scored 16 points, and his layup with 7:36 left in the half gave Utah a 31-16 lead.

But Doleac picked up his second foul with about 5:05 to go before halftime and Majerus pulled him out. With Doleac gone, UNC Charlotte's offense worked much better.

The seventh-seeded 49ers used a 9-0 run to cut the Utes' lead to 37-31 with 1:04 left. Two free throws by Van Horn closed the half's scoring and the Utes had some issues to deal with.

"I think we got a little nervous when they made their run," Doleac said. "But I didn't feel a real sense of urgency."

With the way UNC Charlotte (22-9) shot from the field, Utah had no reason to worry. UNC Charlotte shot only 38.7% in the first half, 34.4% in the second and 36.5% overall.

UNC Charlotte used a 7-0 run to cut Utah's lead to 47-40 with 14:23 remaining in the game. But two baskets by Doleac and one by point guard Andre Miller pushed Utah's lead to 53-42 with 11:21 left.

"We ran into a great basketball team," said UNC Charlotte first-year Coach Melvin Watkins, a former player and longtime assistant at the school.

"I have seen Utah on television and have watched them on tape, but it is hard to see how really good they are until you can see them in person."

Van Horn, with a little help from his teammates, held standout 49er forward DeMarco Johnson to six points. Johnson, the 49ers' leading scorer at 19 points per game, missed seven of nine shots.

But Johnson had a great day compared to point guard Sean Colson, who missed 12 of 13 shots.

So now Utah is off to San Jose, where it just might face Kentucky for the West Regional championship. And if they do meet again, Miller said the Utes won't worry about Kentucky's 101-70 victory last season in the Midwest Regional at Minneapolis.

"That was a long time ago," he said. "We expect a lot more from this team now."

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