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Cinderella teams get the message

Robyn Norwood | ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

March 23, 2008|Robyn Norwood

Something sweet will happen today in Tampa.

Either San Diego or Western Kentucky will be on its way to Phoenix to meet UCLA in a West Regional semifinal.

A 12 and a 13 are playing for a spot in the Sweet 16, and the winner might be the team that stops checking its text messages first.

"When I got back after the game, it was 172, but I don't know what it ended up being," Ty Rogers, the Western Kentucky player whose three-pointer at the end of overtime gave the 12th-seeded Hilltoppers an upset of Drake, told reporters in Tampa, Fla.

De'Jon Jackson made the game-winning shot for 13th-seeded San Diego in its overtime upset of Connecticut.

"Yeah, it was a little crazy after the game," Jackson said. "I'm not sure if I had 172, but I had a lot of text messages."

In a tournament becoming known for who's gone -- traditional powers Duke, Connecticut, Kentucky and Arizona are out, recent national champions Florida, Syracuse and Maryland didn't even make the field and three of six Pacific 10 teams have been sent packing -- mid-majors have a chance to make a mark today.

The little guys will get one team into the Sweet 16 out of Tampa. Butler, Siena and Davidson have a chance to advance too.

This tournament is minus some famous names, but the San Diego-Western Kentucky game is a dream for the NCAA and CBS: Two buzzer-beating underdogs meet with a guaranteed slipper for the winner.

Western Kentucky has a little-known NBA prospect in Courtney Lee. And San Diego has a first-year coach with a tournament-darling resume in former Gonzaga assistant Bill Grier, along with a freshman with a mesmerizing and tragic family history. Forward Rob Jones is a grandson of Jim Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple cult who died after leading more than 900 people to their deaths by mass suicide and murder in Guyana in 1978. The player's father, Jim Jones Jr., is the adopted son of Jim Jones and survived that day because he was away playing in a basketball tournament.

Today's San Diego-Western Kentucky game will be a battle of pace, with the Toreros trying to control the tempo -- they held Connecticut to 69 in an overtime game -- and the Hilltoppers eager to push it. They scored 101 in their overtime victory over Drake.

Among the interested viewers will be former San Diego coach Brad Holland, who was fired after an 18-14 season last year but recruited all but one of the current players, Trumaine Johnson.

"You know, actually, Coach Holland, who I ended up replacing, he sent me a tremendously kind text message," Grier told reporters in Tampa. "I called him last night. And I've said this throughout the course of the season, but he deserves a lot of credit for the success that this program has had this year. I mean, they're his kids. He recruited them, and I've just been fortunate enough to coach them."

The Toreros are where they are partly because of the players Holland left behind -- and also because of what Grier was able to do with them. The circumstances left Holland with a multitude of emotions.

"Boy, there were many," he said. "Wishing that I could have been there. Hoping I could gain some satisfaction seeing what they're doing but not being part of it. I'm really happy for the kids, obviously. They get to experience something that's perhaps once in a lifetime. The thing to do is to try to take advantage of this one opportunity. You never know if you'll get back. If you're Carolina, you know you'll probably get back."

The stars of San Diego's upset of Connecticut included Gyno Pomare, a 6-foot-8 forward who stepped outside against 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet and scored 22 points, and guard Brandon Johnson, who scored 18.

Johnson was the star of one of the biggest victories in school history in December when the Toreros defeated Kentucky at Rupp Arena.

It was an upset they didn't get as much credit for as one would expect, largely because little-known Gardner Webb already had managed the same feat.

"But they weren't afraid of UConn, because they had beaten Kentucky at Kentucky," Holland said.

There won't be anything unprecedented about the winner of this game moving on. Only two seasons ago, Bradley made the Sweet 16 as a 13th-seeded team, and George Mason, a No. 11, went all the way to the Final Four.

Still, in a world of ubiquitous communications devices, it's best for a team to keep its eyes on the prize.

Western Kentucky Coach Darrin Horn had a cut on his nose Saturday. It was from walking into a door while he was looking at his text messages.

"I wish I could say I hit it on the rim trying to dunk in practice today. I did try to dunk. I didn't get one down today," he said. "No, I just ran into a door, which was a little bit goofy.

"The four people in our group, the three in front of me were about 5-9, and they walked right under the door. I kept walking and nailed it."

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robyn.norwood@latimes.com

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