Trick that's been a treat

Basketball: No. 10 seed Seton Hall has been winning with mirrors, and fans have been enjoying the underdog Pirates' improbable run.

Ncaa Tournament

March 24, 2000|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The temptation might be mighty if someone other than Tommy Amaker were the coach at Seton Hall.

"We want Duke" could have been resounding from the faithful more than a week ago -- soon after the NCAA had bracketed both schools into the East Regional with a possible meeting in the regional championship just beyond the horizon.

But Amaker, the former stellar point guard and assistant coach for the Blue Devils, wanted to hear nothing of a future coaching duel between himself and his mentor, Mike Krzyzewski.

"I've never brought that experience up with my players since I've been at Seton Hall," said Amaker, who has the Pirates rising steadily in the Big East. "If you come into my office, there's nothing in there that would indicate I played for Duke or coached there. This is our players' time at Seton Hall, and I'm not going to take away from that."

That's a wise move from a third-year head coach who has managed to keep his team attentive to the chore of the moment. The approach has been to take each segment of the NCAA grind as a four-team tournament and see where it leads.

So far, the glass slipper fits perfectly, and No. 10 seed Seton Hall (22-9) enters tonight's regional semifinal against third-seeded Oklahoma State (26-6) looking a lot like the little train that could.

No victory could have been more exciting than Seton Hall's 67-65 overtime ousting of second-seeded Temple, a team many favored to win the entire tournament. That was the second layer on the Pirates' plank, and they reached it without their floor captain, injured Shaheen Holloway.

But Holloway was entirely noticeable in the first round in another thrilling escape, going coast to coast for a buzzer-beating bucket to eliminate Oregon in overtime, 72-71. Seton Hall has thus become the first team since Louisville (the eventual NCAA titlist) 20 years ago to prevail in consecutive overtime games in the tournament.

Are the Pirates doing it with mirrors?

It has certainly been an improbable scenario for a squad that had lost five of seven games entering postseason play, had not advanced beyond the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament and was very young and inexperienced in the interior.

Matters turned even more grim when Holloway, the flamboyant senior point guard, had to be carried out of Buffalo's HBSC Arena early in the Temple game. Fortunately, his injured ankle was not fractured, and he is still a possible with a torn ligament for tonight's test against the bigger, burlier Cowboys.

Amaker said yesterday that an appearance by Holloway "doesn't look very promising."

All his loss meant last week was that Ty Shine again would step out of Holloway's shadow to score a career-high 26 points to help put the Owls to sleep.

Seton Hall has been testimony to resilience, the little man's place in a big man's game and yes, the power of the three-pointer. The top four scorers on this squad are guards; the top two big men are freshmen whose responsibility is to rebound and, in the case of 6-foot-11 Samuel Dalembert, to block shots and force opponents to alter others.

The Hall even survived the loss of Dalembert for 14 minutes against Temple when he encountered foul trouble early in the second half.

This is a will among them and, so far, there has been a way for a team the experts ignored as a Big East contender before the season.

"I think everybody is doing a good job of not showing emotions," Holloway said before Seton Hall launched the tournament. "Right now, we've got a lot of mature guys on the team and that maturity shows a lot. The coaching staff does a great job of making everybody feel comfortable."

And, of course, anything the Pirates accomplished would have been a bonus. There was no pressure on a team that has played far beyond expectations. Amaker told them to have fun.

"People talk about momentum entering the tournament, but I've always thought that in the tournament you can gain momentum with a win," he said. "We have to play hard and try to start a roll. That's the one thing these kids have demonstrated the ability to do this season."

In the Pirates' favor has been their work ethic. The perimeter players expend considerable energy getting the ball inside, then maneuvering endlessly to find open spots to shoot treys. Holloway, Shine, Darius Lane and Rimas Kaukenas never seem to get tired.

A lot of that is derived from the indomitable attitude of Kaukenas, the Lithuanian co-captain, who plays through minor injuries and moves endlessly.

"He brings a lot of things," Holloway said. "He brings enthusiasm, passion, hustle, all the things you need for a team to win. When he wasn't at 100 percent, the team struggled a little bit. He does things that we don't have, brings a certain tempo, gets down on the floor for balls, gets in people's face when you need it. He just shows leadership."

Despite Holloway's immense talent and Dalembert's presence in the paint, Kaukenas is the least expendable player on the roster.

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