It's the national championship game, pitting a tradition rich non-Power Conference opponent against one of the most storied programs in all of college basketball. The venue, San Antonio, the outcome could be historic. That smaller program from a smaller conference holds what appears to be an insurmountable lead, only to fall apart in the end, shattering the dream. Sound like Utah in 1998? Yes, but it's exactly how the 2008 College Basketball National Championship Game played out between the Memphis Tigers, they're the program from the smaller Conference USA and the Kansas Jayhawks, the Big Boy of college basketball tradition.
Like Memphis a decade later, Utah entered the 1998 national championship game with one goal, winning it all -- as just being there was not enough. In their way, like Kansas, was one of the most storied programs in all of college basketball, the University of Kentucky. Utah entered the game barely underdogs, having knocked off two #1 seeds on their way to the national championship game. They were, by most accounts, the hottest team entering that game and for one half, they stayed that way. The Utes led by 10 at the half and were a mere 20 minutes away from winning it all. That's as close as they ever got, Kentucky roared out of the gate, chipped away at Utah's lead and eventually put them away in the final five minutes of the second half. It was the largest second half comeback in NCAA Championship history and a moment that left Utah wondering "what if...".
What if Rick Majerus had used his bench more, resting his already exhausted starters? Maybe they would not have lost their legs toward the end of the game, when Utah needed their best the most.
Fast forward to 2008 and a nearly identical scenario is playing out on that same court. The Memphis Tigers rolled into the national championship game, easily dispatching Texas in the Elite Eight and heavily favored UCLA in the Final Four. Though they trailed at the half, the Tigers cruised for much of the second half, building a 9-point lead with less than 3 minutes to go. It looked as if Memphis would do what Utah couldn't, stun the college basketball world. Instead, like Utah, their lead slowly evaporated. Soon, the Tigers were in a fight for their championship lives, as Kansas forced overtime. That's where the dream ended and Memphis was left wondering "what if..."
What if Derrick Rose had made one more free throw? Mario Chalmers' 3-point shot with a little over 2 seconds left wouldn't have been enough and the Tigers most certainly would have won. Unfortunately for both Memphis and Utah, what ifs do not count in college sports. And that's what will haunt the Tigers for a very long time. I know, it's been 10 years since Utah's loss in the national championship game to Kentucky and I'm still not over it.