ORLANDO, Fla. -- It was a scene that no one seriously expected to see at the Orlando Arena yesterday, but there they were -- the red-clad Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky swaying at midcourt to the tune of "My Old Kentucky Home" while the second-seeded Seton Hall Pirates walked off the court in stunned silence.
There already had been one big upset in the NCAA tournament. Arizona was eliminated from the West Southeast Regional
Regional by unheralded Santa Clara on Thursday night. Now, there was another, and Western Kentucky's 72-68 victory in the second round of the Southeast Regional was almost as shocking.
Seton Hall was considered to be a solid Final Four candidate, but it was the seventh-seeded Hilltoppers who remained on the road to New Orleans with an 11-point run in the final minutes of the game. The Pirates held a four-point lead with 4:38 remaining and did not score again until there were seven seconds left.
Guard Mark Bell, who at 5 feet 8 was the smallest player on either team, scored 20 points and knocked down a 13-foot running jumper with 1:46 to play to put Western Kentucky four points ahead. The Hilltoppers did the rest at the free-throw line and on defense to move into the round of 16 against third-seeded Florida State.
"We felt confident going into the game that if we followed our game plan we would be all right," Bell said. "It's like a dream game for us, playing a Big East team -- playing a great team -- but we played our hearts out and came out on top."
It will be the first time that Western Kentucky has gone to the round of 16 since 1978, when the Hilltoppers were eliminated by a team from Michigan State that included a freshman guard by the name of Magic Johnson. Western Kentucky went to the Final Four in 1971, but this victory had to rank as one of the biggest in the history of the basketball program.
"If the media and outside people view this as a huge upset, so be it," Western Kentucky coach Ralph Willard said. "I know Seton Hall is a fine basketball team, but I came into this game very confident. I felt the game would be decided in the last five minutes. This may seem to be a big game for our program to you people, but I believe in this team and I believe in our style of play."
The loss had to rank as one of the bigger disappointments in the career of Seton Hall coach P. J. Carlesimo, whose team had dominated the Big East and swept through the conference tournament. The Pirates (28-7) were expected to end up in a showdown with Kentucky for a place among the Final Four.
"Western Kentucky played very well," Carlesimo said. "They played harder, they played better and they were better prepared than we were. It's disappointing because these guys have worked very hard and we had a pretty good year, but we came up against a team that believed in themselves and played very well."
The defeat brought an end to the college career of Big East
Player of the Year Terry Dehere. He went out with a game-high 30-point performance, but he went out much earlier than he had expected and it showed on his face as he left the court.
"I was in shock that we lost," he said, "but also because it was my final game and it wasn't something that I thought would happen so soon. But they played better than we did."
The Hilltoppers (26-5) took control of the game early, moving out to a nine-point lead with 12 minutes left in the first half. Seton Hall fought back, but the Pirates did not take their first lead until forward Arturas Karnishovas hit a 16-footer from the right side two minutes into the second half.
Both teams got into foul trouble early and four players -- including Seton Hall starters Arturas Karnishovas and Jerry Walker -- fouled out of the game.
Every Western Kentucky starter had at least three fouls and star forward Darnell Mee got his fourth with more than 12 minutes left. But Bell single-handedly controlled the tempo of the game and almost willed the Hilltoppers to victory.
"Mark is a difficult matchup," Carlesimo said. "He's small and strong and quick, but he played very big today. His attitude, confidence and the aggressiveness with which he played was an important factor today."
Carlesimo will get no argument from anyone who has been associated with the Western Kentucky basketball program. Bell, who is the youngest of 18 children, averaged 16.9 points this year and set the tempo for what already has been a very successful season.
"If there is anybody with a bigger heart, I haven't found him," Willard said, "and if there is anyone who is a better player, I haven't seen him."