ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The great basketball tradition of Marquette lay in shambles five years ago, when Arizona assistant Kevin O'Neill accepted the challenge of trying to put the Warriors back on the national map.
They arrived this past weekend, with a solid first-round victory over Southwestern Louisiana on Friday and a surprisingly one-sided, 75-63 upset of fifth-ranked Kentucky yesterday at the Thunderdome in the NCAA Southeast Regional.
"We started from ground zero," said O'Neill, whose national reputation has grown even faster than his program's. "The group of people that I'm happiest for is our seniors -- for them to be able to sit here and be one of the top 16 teams in the country. I told them four years ago, if you stay together and keep playing together, you'll have the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament."
The sixth-seeded Warriors (24-8) have taken that opportunity and turned it into an unlikely run at the Final Four. They are not alone. Maryland advanced to the Sweet 16 with a surprising victory over favored Massachusetts on Saturday, and Boston College pushed North Carolina off the dance floor yesterday. But in Milwaukee -- where basketball has not been king since Al McGuire made plaid sports jackets popular -- they're probably planning the parade already.
Marquette dominated the inside game and shut down No. 3 seed Kentucky's dangerous perimeter shooters to take a big first-half lead, then survived a furious Wildcats rally early in the second half to move into a regional semifinal showdown with second-seeded Duke on Thursday in Knoxville, Tenn.
Senior forward Damon Key scored 25 points and senior guard Robb Logterman added 14, but it was the flashy play-making of point guard Tony Miller that allowed the Warriors to overcome Kentucky's full-court pressure.
The Wildcats got their share of turnovers, but Miller dribbled through the press and gave the Warriors the opportunity to exploit their tremendous size advantage inside.
"We knew they were going to come hard," said Miller, who had nine assists. "Basically, we were going to try and keep the ball in my hands. What I was trying to do was attack their big guy. We wanted to attack their press and get baskets."
The result was not always pretty, but the results were impressive. The Wildcats got into early foul trouble and lost big man Andre Riddick with six minutes left in the game.
Credit an assist to an unlikely source, Arizona coach Lute Olson. O'Neill turned to his mentor for a scouting report and incorporated Olson's advice in his game plan.
"Lute had played them, and he said, 'Kevin, if there's one thing to beat their pressure, it's to dribble through the pressure and dribble at the big guy,' " O'Neill said. "It was not an original thought, so I wanted to give credit where it was due."
If the Wildcats had hoped to exploit Marquette's lack of polish inside, they found the three Warriors big men too hard to handle in the first half. Sophomore center Amal McCaskill may be a little rough around the edges, but he had nine points and six rebounds when Marquette carried a 15-point lead into the locker room.
If Kentucky had hoped to get the Warriors into foul trouble, that didn't work, either. McCaskill, Key and 7-foot-1 Jim McIlvaine each had two fouls at the half, but Wildcats forward Rodrick Rhodes had three and big men Jared Prickett and Riddick had two each.
Kentucky fell behind by 18 before coming back to close within two points with a blistering second-half run that included three three-point baskets in a span of 80 seconds. Marquette might have unraveled if the Wildcats could have kept the pressure on at the offensive end, but the Warriors regained their composure and pulled away.
"We made a great run," said Kentucky coach Rick Pitino. "Our guys came off the court exhausted and we had them a little fatigued, but our substitutes didn't go after them. We didn't get that lift."
When it was over, Pitino credited the upset more to Marquette's persistent defensive effort than the Warriors' bruising inside game.
"Marquette is the leading field-goal defensive team in the country, and there are two reasons for that," Pitino said. "They hold the ball, and they do not allow you to shoot without a challenge from one of their big guys. You never get a really good look at the basket."
The Wildcats finished 27-7, even though they lost All-American Jamal Mashburn to the NBA and center Rodney Dent to an injury. They still came into the game with more talent and depth than Marquette, but Pitino refused to say that he was surprised by the Warriors' solid all-around performance.
"We didn't underestimate anybody," Pitino said. "Marquette was better than Kentucky. They physically dominated us."