Only three years ago, when his Seton Hall basketball team again got off to a poor start in the Big East Conference, P.J. Carlesimo was an unpopular man close to losing his job.
The school's student senate even passed a resolution calling for his dismissal.Carlesimo survived, took his team to the NCAA Tournament in three of the next four seasons and now is within one victory of his second Final Four appearance in three years.
In a mild upset, Seton Hall defeated Arizona 81-77 on Thursday in the semifinals of the West Regional at the Kingdome. The Pirates will play the No. 1-rated Nevada-Las Vegas.
The game was close throughout, but the Pirates took the lead for good on a turnaround jump shot by center Anthony Avent with 3:02 remaining. The Pirates then made seven of 10 free throws down the stretch.
Arizona's Matt Othick missed a three-point shot from the corner with four seconds remaining that could have tied that game at 80.
"We still have a way to go to be compared to the Final Four team in terms of the NCAA Tournament," Carlesimo said. "But these guys all year have kept stepping up and surprising us."
Terry Dehere led the Pirates with 28 points and Avent, the only player left from the Final Four team two years ago, added 15. Both also did their part rebounding, helping neutralize an Arizona advantage.
They also played excellent defense, helping to deny the ball inside to Arizona's big men. The Pirates held the Wildcats to under .500 shooting (.492), the 32nd time in 33 games they have kept an opponent from making at least half its shots.
As expected, the game was physical, with plenty of pushing and shoving underneath the basket and inside the foul lane. Not all of it went undetected, however, and that hurt Seton Hall (25-8) more than Arizona (28-7).
The Pirates' lone true big man, Avent, was whistled for his third foul with 7:01 left in the first half. That made it difficult for Seton Hall to contend with the Tucson Skyline - 6-foot-11 Brian Williams, 6-foot-11 Sean Rooks and 7-foot substitute Ed Stokes.
Nonetheless, Seton overcame an 8-0 deficit in which the Pirates were 0-for-6 from the field. They took leads of 14-11, 19-15 and opened up a 27-20 advantage when Arturas Karnishovas nailed a three-pointer with 5:45 left in the half.
The second half began with Seton Hall quickly gaining a lead on three-pointers by Karnishovas and Dehere. Then, no team could manage a lead of more than four.