Arthur Lee, who had rallied Stanford back from worse, dragged the Cardinal to the threshold of victory again Saturday.
Then, it was over, at least for this season, a point guard one point short of the national title game.
Final score: Kentucky 86, Stanford 85.
"When the buzzer sounded, I couldn't believe that we lost," said Lee, the North Hollywood High graduate whose long three-point basket sent the game into overtime. "It was a great run.
"We almost did it. We almost made it to the national championship game when very few people thought that we could make it this far.
"Now we have something to build on. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise for next year."
Next season, Stanford--which returns 10 of its top 11 players--figures to be the odds-on favorite to win the Pacific 10 title.
"We really thought we were going to win today," sophomore forward Mark Madsen said. "But we have had a great season.
"We are going to take this thing and learn from it and work as hard as we possibly can this spring, this summer, next fall, and we will be back."
Lee, in particular, proved himself this tournament--with his 13 points in the final two minutes to rally Stanford over Rhode Island in the Midwest Regional final, with his 26 points Saturday--as someone who no longer dwells in Brevin Knight's shadow.
"He was something," Cardinal Coach Mike Montgomery said of Lee. "I've got to believe, based on his performance in the tournament, he goes into next year as a guy to look at.
"He answered the call. He ran the club."
And he, like Stanford, will be back.
Four minutes into the game, two quick fouls sent Kentucky center Nazr Mohammed, a key part of the Wildcats' plans, to the bench for the rest of the first half, after scoring one point and grabbing one rebound.
But the 6-foot-10 Mohammed was an immediate and prolonged factor in the second half and overtime, finishing with 18 points, three blocked shots and five rebounds--and outplaying Stanford center Tim Young down the stretch.
"I didn't do what I needed to do in the first half," Mohammed said. "But just because you have a bad half doesn't mean you have to have two bad halves."
Sophomore guard Ed Cota, one of North Carolina's emotional leaders, acknowledged that the Tar Heels' loss to Utah, at least for now, means that the season was unsuccessful.
"We had a great year, but we had a goal to win a national championship and we didn't do that," Cota said. "I feel failure."
In a game in which the Utes seized control from the start and Carolina made its charge in the second half, Cota said that Vince Carter's miss of the front end of a one-and-one opportunity was the last chance for a momentum switch.
Carter shot the free throw with Utah ahead, 59-55, and 1:42 left.
"I think we had the momentum down the stretch," said Cota, who had eight points, seven assists and seven rebounds. "When . . . Vince missed the free throw, that changed the game. We just never could get back in it after that.
"We gave them a chance to regain the momentum, and they took the game."
Kentucky has been at the end of the NCAA tournament road for Utah in three of the last five seasons--including the last two.
In 1997, the Wildcats defeated Utah in the West Regional final, 72-59.
In 1996, Kentucky eliminated the Utes in the Midwest Regional semifinals, 101-70.
And in 1993, Kentucky beat Utah, 83-62, in the second round of the Southeast Regional.
North Carolina's loss removed the final No. 1-seeded team from the tournament, so, for the first time since 1991, a No. 1-seeded team will not play for the national championship. That year, No. 2-seeded Duke defeated No. 3 Kansas, 72-65. Utah was the West Regional's third-seeded team this season, and Kentucky was No. 2 in the South. . . . Kentucky, which won the national title in 1996 and lost to Arizona in last season's championship game, became the first team since Duke in 1990-92 to reach the title game in three consecutive seasons.
Stanford's Lee set an NCAA tournament record for most free throws made without a miss, making all 35 of his attempts in Stanford's five-game run. He was nine for nine Saturday. The previous best was a 23-for-23 performance by Virginia's Richard Morgan in 1989. Last season, Utah's Keith Van Horn went 21 for 21. . . . North Carolina shot a season-low seven free throws and made a season-low two. The Tar Heels' free-throw percentage (.286) was the second-lowest in Final Four history, behind Nevada Las Vegas' 20% (one for five) in the 1977 semifinals against North Carolina. . . . Utah is 7-0 in neutral-site games this season.