SAN ANTONIO — Those questions about whether Utah could leap the way North Carolina does, well, there was a good enough response for 40,509 to see at the end of the teams' NCAA semifinal game Saturday.
Only one team had reason to jump for joy, and it was Utah, which sent North Carolina's players trudging off the court flat-footed after the Utes' 65-59 victory, a domination so thorough that it hardly seemed like an upset at the end.
Let people say Utah beat Arizona with a gimmick defense, its now-famous triangle-and-two. But Utah beat No. 1-seeded North Carolina playing mostly man-to-man, and it wasn't even close until the last five minutes.
"We're all in awe right now," said Utah forward Alex Jensen, whose team will face Kentucky for the NCAA championship Monday night in the Alamodome, the Utes' first appearance in a national championship game since 1944, when Utah won the NCAA title.
"It's happened fast," center Michael Doleac said. "We know what's going on, but I don't think we want to absorb it. We're not done yet."
North Carolina (34-4) is, however, after losing in the NCAA semifinals for the second year in a row.
Utah point guard Andre Miller, the former Verbum Dei High player from Compton who has made himself a star in this NCAA tournament, was superb again. He had 16 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists, nearly reprising his triple-double against Arizona. He pushed the ball relentlessly against a North Carolina defense that couldn't contain him.
But Utah (30-3) did it by putting a defensive wrap on Antawn Jamison, the national player of the year, and holding the nation's best shooting team to 39%, its lowest percentage of the season and far below its 52% average.
Jamison, handled primarily by Doleac with some help from Hanno Mottola, made only seven of 19 shots--only four of 12 in the first half--and finished with 14 points.
Doleac tried to deny Jamison the ball, and when he got it, to not leave his feet and allow the quicker Jamison to get around him. Jamison forced shots from all angles, and his frustration showed throughout.
But before he left the court, he knelt and kissed it.
"I might never have the opportunity to get back to the Final Four," said Jamison, who like teammate Vince Carter will now consider whether to turn pro a year early. "I don't think it was a sign of this being my last ballgame whatsoever, but it was at that time, what I felt. I just felt to make it to the Final Four two years in a row is almost impossible."
Worse yet was Shammond Williams, the Tar Heel senior guard who was so bent on making amends for his one-for-13 performance in last season's NCAA semifinal loss to Arizona. He was as awful this year as he was last.
Williams went two for 12, and one for nine from three-point range, after going one for eight from three-point range last season.
He went 0 for five in the first half, and didn't make a shot until he hit a three-pointer four minutes into the second half. He didn't make another until the final minute.
"Every shot I shot, I thought was on the mark," Williams said. "Every shot I shot, hit dead on the center of the rim or the back of the rim."
He must not have gotten a good look at a couple of them.
"It's not his fault," teammate Ademola Okulaja said. "It's nobody's fault. We win together, and we lose together. It was not our offense that lost it. It was our defense.
"They came to play at the beginning of the game, and we came 10 minutes late."
Utah hit its first three shots in the opening two minutes--a three-pointer by Hanno Mottola, another three by Doleac and then a near three-pointer by Doleac, and Utah lead, 9-2.
North Carolina didn't hit its second field goal until more than five minutes into the game, when Jamison slammed home a rebound, but by then Utah already lead by 12, 16-4.
Utah led by 13 at halftime, and still was up by 11 with eight minutes left.
The Tar Heels came from 17 down to beat Wake Forest this season, but couldn't do it against a Utah team that never wilted.
Try as the Tar Heels did, they couldn't bite into the lead for the longest time, with Jamison fumbling away the ball with one chance to cut it to seven.
Another time, Williams let fly another of his off-the-mark three-point attempts.
Vince Carter--the only effective Tar Heel, scoring 21 points--was the one who finally cut the lead to six, 56-50, with 4:25 to play, and with 3:24 left, Okulaja hit a three to make it four, 57-53.
Utah endured a six-minute stretch without a basket, and the Tar Heels' Ed Cota finally cut the lead to two, 57-55, when he drove and pulled up for a jumper at the free-throw line.
But then Miller went to work again, pushing the ball upcourt for a layup and a 59-55 lead with 1:57 left. North Carolina didn't score again until Williams' driving layup trimmed the lead from seven to five with 30 seconds left, making it 62-57.
Utah didn't make all its free throws down the stretch, but didn't need to against a Tar Heel team that suddenly looked aimless and out of weapons.
"They got off to a big lead there, and we just couldn't get over the hump," North Carolina Coach Bill Guthridge said.
Two teams are standing, and for the first time since 1991, neither is a No. 1-seeded team.
Utah has dispatched Arizona and North Carolina in back-to-back games. Now, like Arizona last year, can it beat a giant a third time and win the NCAA title?
Some people still wonder.
"If that's what they're saying, I think we still have a chance to respond," Miller said. "We have one more game to prove ourselves."