Talk about winning ugly. Seton Hall didn't just-beat its West Regional opponents. The Pirates pillaged the poor things with an old-fashioned intensity that showed a couple of famous defensive masters—coaches Bob Knight of Indiana and Jerry Tarkanian of UNLV—how perfect a vicious man-to-man can be.
"When you get to this stage [the final 16], nobody feels too comfortable, but we've actually been planning for this all along," said Seton Hall's 39-year-old coach, P.J. Carlesimo, before the action commenced in Denver's McNichols Sports Arena. Now that the Pirates have pounded Indiana 78-65 and UNLV 84-61, handing both teams the worst NCAA tournament defeats in their respective histories, the world outside northern New Jersey might find out just who Carlesimo and the Pirates actually are.
Hey, some of the New York newspapers don't even bother to cover this team with a regular beat reporter, so whaddaya expect? Seton Hall is neither Rutgers nor Princeton nor any relation to Fawn Hall, and its campus in South Orange. N.J., is at least 14 miles of tunnels, bridges and indescribable odors away from the Apple. Besides, there are players on the Hall from places like Australia, Puerto Rico and Haiti, not to mention Brooklyn and the Bronx. And the coach with the initials and the beard, what's his gig? From the looks of things, he's either a philosophy grad student or an Italian rabbi. The only other time his Pirates ever made the NCAAs, which was last March, Arizona wasted them 84-55 in the second round.
April 2, 1989
If the Pirates, who finished second in the Big East this season behind Georgetown, weren't exactly CinderHalla in Denver, they had a certain Dangerfieldian air about them. A Rocky Mountain News front-page caption referred to the team as the Saints. The public-address announcer spoke of P.J. CarleSEEMo. (It's CarLISSemo.) A hotel fire alarm rudely interrupted one of Carlesimo's press conferences. And that was shortly after his father. Peter—the recently retired longtime director of the NIT and one of the game's legendary banquet speakers—was almost thrown out of the press conference because nobody knew who he was, either.
Knight knew all about Seton Hall, though, and his triheaded Hoosier back-court of Jay Edwards. Joe Hillman and Lyndon Jones, who were harassed into missing 22 of 31 shots, became educated very early. "I can't emphasize enough how well put together this team is," said Knight after the Pirates' big men, led by Ramon Ramos and Daryll Walker, shut down Indiana's inside attack.
Seton Hall had held a previous tournament foe, Evansville, scoreless for stretches of 4:39 and 5:08. This time the Pirates kept Indiana from scoring a field goal for the final 6:20 of the first half and for another 5:41 toward the end of the second. The Hoosiers shot 39.1% for the game, and when they made a run to pull within four points with 5:53 left, the 6'8", 250-pound Ramos—a mainstay on the Puerto Rican Olympic team—bulled his way to some key buckets and rebounds.
Knight acknowledged that "Ramos controlled us at both ends." But one play down the stretch was instructive of the Pirates' entire season. As the Hoosiers again threatened, with less than two minutes to go and the Pirates leading 70-63, Haitian-born Frantz Volcy knocked the ball away from Indiana's Edwards. It was chased down by Seton Hall's Gerald Greene, who baseball-passed downcourt to Michael Cooper, who touch-passed to Walker angling to the basket, who flipped to Australian Olympian Andrew Gaze for the clinching layup.
It was the kind of five-easy-pieces ballet that No. 1 Arizona had been searching for during much of the season. But superstar forward Sean Elliott had simply been too good and the Pac-10 too weak for the Wildcats to improve.
Against Arizona in the round of 16, the Runnin' Rebels' Stacey Augmon, whom Elliott had undressed for 32 points in an 86-75 victory over UNLV in December, forced Elliott into twice as many turnovers (four) as baskets (two) in the first half. Still, Elliott, who finished his brilliant career with game highs of 22 points and 14 rebounds, rallied the Wildcats from seven points behind in the second half to a 67-65 advantage with 1:36 remaining. Then Augmon struck again. He reached in and knocked the ball loose from Arizona's Kenny Lofton, who recovered and passed to Matt Muehlebach. With 30 seconds left Muehlebach was called for traveling on the baseline.
UNLV, which had been held scoreless in its last 10 possessions, ran the clock down for a final shot. With seven seconds left, Lofton got too close to the Rebels' Anderson Hunt on the right wing. Hunt turned, knocked Lofton down, glanced at the floor to make sure he was behind the three-point parabola and fired. Jackpot: 68-67 Vegas.
At five o'clock the next morning, Arizona coach Lute Olson was still watching the taped replay, but the charging foul still had not been called, the basket still counted, and the back of Hunt's head still read NICE, in shaved script, no less. Another wondrous Arizona season was over.
"We sent Luther home," a gleeful Tarkanian had said after the game, and his friends couldn't remember him enjoying a victory more. But come Saturday, Tark hardly had time for the pain as Seton Hall overcame a 21-14 deficit with that back-alley defense and eight straight points from Anthony Avent. Who? Not Advent. Not Lent. Not Easter—though this was Easter eve. With UNLV forcing a fast pace, Ramos, who finished with zero points, was ineffectual. So Carlesimo inserted Avent, a 6'9" Prop 48 sophomore, to contend with agile Rebel center David Butler, who had UNLV shaved onto his head in block letters, not script. Butler wound up with 15 points.
By halftime the Pirates were ahead 34-30, and with 13:47 to play in the second half they broke a 46-45 game wide open with 14 unanswered points. During that streak the Rebels went uh-oh for seven possessions on the way to shooting a miserable 30.1% from the field for the game. "They wore us down," said Tarkanian. "We had nothing left. It's hard to play tough defense when you come down and miss and miss."
The Seton Hall bench carved as strong a signature on the Rebels' weary domes as any Strip hairdresser, outscoring the Runnin' Rebel subs 38-9. In addition, starting forward Gaze, who was the second-leading scorer at the Seoul Games, wound up with a game-high 19 points and held Augmon to eight. "Clearly, I'm athletically limited compared to Stacey," said the 6'7" Gaze, a rather laid-back native of Melbourne. "I just played him according to instructions; put some thought into it. That gave me a bit of an edge."
Amiability runs in the Pirate family. Carlesimo, who's the oldest of 10 children, a bachelor and something of a boulevardier (if that's what you call a guy who eats pasta late at night at the Bella Italia restaurant in Orange), is that rarest of humans: a coach without an enemy. The lingering hugs he got from Knight and Tarkanian were obviously genuine acknowledgments that their friend's kid, old Pete C's boy, P.J., had made it to the top.
"Players play; coaches don't do much." Carlesimo told the press, which, of course, loves him too. "This isn't exactly a difficult job, gentlemen and ladies." Perhaps, but consider that his first Seton Hall team was 6-23 in 1982-83 and that the current Pirates will take a 30-6 record to Seattle.
Last week Carlesimo used the word "special" so often—to describe Knight, Tarkanian, the NCAA, the West Regional, his parents, his team, his beard—that he sounded like Saturday Night Lives Church Lady. Then again, Seton Hall is named after a holy woman, the first American-born saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton. And a coach who can whip a couple of legends, as well as laugh, cry and embrace his mother and father on the way to the Final Four, must be very special indeed.