Monday, March 15, 2004

Mountain Hawks, Rattlers no strangers to big-game pressure

UK's opponent: Lehigh or Florida A&M

By Ryan Ernst
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Believe it or not, the two teams vying to play the University of Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament have a more looming problem - each other.

The Dance (Index)
Seeds: UK 1, UC 4, XU 7
Daugherty: Bandwagon jumpers look silly now
Seeds are planted, now for the games
Bracket breakdown
Women: UConn passed over for a top spot
Printable bracket (PDF):
Men | Women

Local teams:
Cincinnati | Opp.

Xavier | Opp.
Kentucky | Opp.
Women's NIT: Miami, Xavier and UC in

Lehigh and Florida A&M, the 64th and 65th teams in the field of 65, will play in Tuesday's opening-round game in Dayton. The winner will be the 16th seed in the St. Louis bracket and will play Kentucky on Friday in Columbus.

For Florida A&M (14-16), the only team in the tournament with a losing record, the play-in game was a topic of conversation as soon as the Rattlers won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament on Saturday.

"That's fine," FAMU coach Billy Taylor told the Associated Press after the game, a day before the brackets came out. "That'll give us a chance to get another win and then go upset Kentucky or whoever we play."

Might as well dream big. For most of the season, making the field of 65 was about as improbable for FAMU as upsetting a team like Kentucky. The Rattlers lost 10 of 11 games in a stretch lasting from November to January. They started the season 2-10. Heading into the MEAC Tournament, in which they were seeded fifth, they lost two straight games.

But after sliding past Hampton 72-71 in the tournament's quarterfinals, the Rattlers stunned top seed South Carolina State 65-53 in the semifinals. They finished off the run with Saturday's 58-51 win over Coppin State in the final.

FAMU previously made the NCAA Tournament in 1999, when it had a 12-18 record.

Lehigh took a more traditional route to the tournament - kind of. The Mountain Hawks (20-10) were the top seed in the Patriot League Tournament but needed overtime to beat Navy 62-60 in the first round. After beating Bucknell 60-45 in the semis, it took a runner from Jose Olivero with 3.8 seconds left in the final to beat American 59-57 and put Lehigh into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1988.

Despite playing in two of the weaker Division I conferences, both squads have experience against tournament-caliber teams. Lehigh lost to Connecticut 75-55 and to Vanderbilt 85-59. FAMU played three teams in the field, losing to North Carolina State, Florida and Alabama State by an average of 20 points a game.

About UK's foes

School: Lehigh University

Nickname: Mountain Hawks

Location: Bethlehem, Pa.

Record: 20-10, 10-4 Patriot League

Bid: Conference tournament champion

Coach: Billy Taylor (36-22, second season)

Key players: Austen Rowland (15.7 ppg, 4.9 apg, 4.1 rpg), Jose Olivero (11.8 ppg)

Notable: The last all-male class graduated from Lehigh in 1972.

School: Florida A&M University

Nickname: Rattlers

Location: Tallahassee, Fla.

Record: 14-16, 10-8 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Bid: Conference tournament champion

Coach: Mike Gillespie (40-47, third season)

Key players: Terrence Woods (20.4 ppg), Demarcus Wilkins (19.9 ppg)

Notable: In 1992, Sports Illustrated named the school's Marching 100 the best marching band in the nation.

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Which Xavier win was bigger: UC when the Bearcats were ranked No. 1 or No. 1 St. Joseph's?