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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Dons of New Era Run Into the Utes

West Regional: San Francisco back in the tournament for the first time since once-storied program was reinstated in 1985.

March 12, 1998|GREG SANDOVAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOISE, Idaho — It's a strange destiny that brought the University of San Francisco's basketball team to the first round of the 1998 NCAA tournament.

Effectively chloroformed in 1982 after a series of scandals, officials from the tiny Catholic school discontinued basketball for three seasons, relegating what was once one of the nation's top programs to a basketball purgatory in the 12 seasons since being reinstated in 1985.

But the Dons' penance ends today when they face No. 7 Utah in a first-round game of the NCAA West Regional at Boise State Pavilion at 4:45 p.m. PST.

"The players know about the strong tradition at USF," San Francisco Coach Philip Mathews said of a basketball history that includes Bill Russell, K.C. Jones and Bill Cartwright.

"This team is proud to have brought the program back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the team was reinstated."

With a small team--no player taller than 6-foot-6--the Dons (19-10) should enjoy their new life while it lasts.

Utah (25-3) is much bigger and more experienced in tournament play, having earned a berth the last four seasons and making it to the round of eight last season, when the Utes lost to Kentucky, 72-59.

With last season's standout, Keith Van Horn, starring in the NBA, senior Michael Doleac, a 6-11 center, has become the main man.

Doleac, who averages 15.4 points and seven rebounds, is joined in the post by 6-11 sophomore Hanno Mottola (12.8 points).

They make up a formidable pair near the basket and are a good reason why none of Utah's opponents have shot more than 50% this season.

A soft schedule is the other reason. The Western Athletic Conference offered little competition, but Utah still was unable to win the WAC tournament, losing to Nevada Las Vegas, 54-51, a week ago. New Mexico, the only top-15 team the Utes played this season, beat the Lobos Feb. 28.

"We aren't accustomed to losing," Coach Rick Majerus said Wednesday. "We had a great practice Saturday. We didn't go into Stalag 13 and whip them. I'm proud of them."

In the UNLV game, Utah made only four of its 20 three-point shots. The Utes, who are not going to blind anyone with their speed, have problems attacking zones and beating full-court presses.

This is what Mathews and the Dons intend to do against them.

"We have to play 94 feet against them and get up-tempo," Mathews said.

Forward Hakeem Ward, the Dons' leading scorer, says that heft and height can be a burden against a swifter opponent. "I've played against 6-11 and 7-footers all year," Ward said. "I'll just use my quickness to my advantage."

That's where Utah's Andre Miller comes in. Miller, a 6-2 junior point guard from Verbum Dei High, averaged 13.7 points and 4.9 assists this season.

Miller is a steady leader. He is sure to keep Utah under control and slow the pace of the game, something the Dons want to keep at a manic pace.

"Hopefully we will play with poise and composure," said Majerus, in his ninth season at Utah. "They rebound the long ball better than anyone. That is a weakness we have. . . . Hopefully we can compensate by going inside.

"We have the size and they have the speed. It's cat and mouse."

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