EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. Jameer Nelson, Delonte West and Saint Joseph's put on quite an eye-popping performance for Billy Packer.
With their No. 1 nemesis watching from the front row and their fans chanting his name in the final minute, the Hawks showed they were a worthy No. 1 seed. Nelson and West each scored 24 points Thursday night, keying an 84-80 victory over Wake Forest in the semifinals of the East Rutherford Regional.
The celebration almost came too early, though. Trailing 76-68, Wake Forest whittled its deficit down to 82-80 with 11.9 seconds left.
But then Nelson escaped a double-team trap in the corner and passed to West, who was fouled. West made both free throws, and the Hawk mascot began flapping in earnest.
The only thing left to do for coach Phil Martelli was walk across the court and shake hands with Packer, who had not seen the Hawks in person before Thursday night. The CBS analyst and Wake Forest alum, having said the Hawks did not deserve a top seed, smiled broadly.
Behind them, Hawks rooters razzed Packer. He turned to them and said, ''You're exactly where you should be.''
Martelli claimed all along that the Hawks (30-1) should be regarded as highly as schools such as Connecticut and Oklahoma State.
''We certainly don't look like these teams, but we sure do play like them.''
The Hawks advanced to play second-seeded Oklahoma State, which banged its way past Pittsburgh 63-51, on Saturday for a trip to the Final Four. Saint Joseph's and the Cowboys have never met in basketball.
With that, Martelli walked to the locker room, shaking his fist at the Saint Joseph's section. He was mostly silent during the game, saving his remarks for his players and the officials.
Despite all the back-and-forth buildup between Martelli and Packer who both beat and lost to the Hawks in the NCAA tournament when he played for Wake Forest, this game was decided solely by the nation's best backcourt.
''As a player, I don't get into that stuff. I leave it to Coach, he does all the trash talking,'' Nelson said.
Nelson, a unanimous pick as an All-American guard, and West took over starting early in the second half when smaller Saint Joseph's ran into foul trouble. The Hawks reached a regional final for the first time since 1981, when they were eliminated by Indiana.
Pat Carroll added 17 points and Tyrone Barley had 13 for the Hawks. Along with Nelson and West, the four players combined for all but six of the Saint Joseph's points.
Justin Gray led fourth-seeded Wake Forest (21-10) with 23 points and Eric Williams had 19. ACC freshman of the year Chris Paul was held scoreless for the first 13 1/2 minutes and finished with 12.
The game took a dangerous turn for the Hawks two minutes into the second half when big men John Bryant and Dwayne Jones each drew their fourth fouls.
At that point, Martelli did the only thing he could with his already smaller team, going to a four-guard offense and putting his fortunes in the hands of Nelson and West. It worked, with both of them hitting shots that turned a 43-42 edge into a 51-44 cushion.
Nelson also provided the patience of a senior leader. When the action threatened to get a little wild, Nelson corralled a rebound and motioned to his teammates to take their time as he walked the ball upcourt.
Paul tried to push the pace for the Demon Deacons. He ran up and down all right, but had trouble scoring as Barley, the designated stopper, came off the bench to hound him.
Wake Forest forced the ball inside right from the start, as expected. A couple of quick baskets by bulky Williams, helped by Paul's speed, put the Demon Deacons up 15-6.
The Hawks hardly panicked. Instead, Nelson grabbed a rebound and went the length of the court, finishing off with a nifty crossover dribble for his first points 6 1/2 minutes into the game.
With Nelson and West flipping neat, quick passes to each other under the basket, Saint Joseph's quickly made up the difference. They each scored 11 points in the first half as the teams seesawed toward the break, with Wake Forest taking a 38-37 lead on Vytas Danelius' foul shot with a minute left.
Oklahoma State took Pittsburgh's pushes, shoves and banging for 33 minutes, then delivered a knockout blow with a late 17-5 run that carried the Cowboys to a 63-51 win Thursday night.
''We played loose, got a chance to run and we capitalized on that,'' Cowboys guard Janavor Weatherspoon said. ''We like to get up and down, and in the second half we got opportunities. That was the difference.''
Oklahoma State (30-3) will meet top-seeded Saint Joseph's on Saturday in the East Rutherford Regional for the right to go to San Antonio for the Final Four.
It will be the sixth regional final for the 68-year-old Sutton. He has been to the Final Four twice, but he has never gotten to the championship game.
This one would be special. Just three years ago, two players and eight other people associated with the program died in a plane crash in Colorado.
After being held to 30 percent shooting from the field in the first half, Oklahoma State hit 16-of-25 shots in the final 20 minutes against the Panthers' aggressive man-to-man defense. The Panthers were the second-toughest team in the country to score against this season, allowing 56.2 points per game.
The Tide is on some kind of roll!
Alabama, a No. 8 seed, beat the defending national champions in the Phoenix Regional semifinals, five days after stunning Stanford.
Kennedy Winston and Earnest Shelton put Alabama (20-12) ahead from the outside in the first half, then Chuck Davis got rough inside in the second and the Crimson Tide is in an NCAA regional final for the first time in the school's history.
Next up Saturday is a matchup against No. 2 seed Connecticut, a 73-53 winner over No. 6 seed Vanderbilt in Thursday's first game.
Shelton scored 22 points and Winston 19 for Alabama, but the difference maker was Davis, who scored 17 of his 19 in the second half as the Tide pulled away.
The Crimson Tide sank 11 of 12 free throws over the final 8:10 and were 19-of-23 at the line overall.
Gerry McNamara scored 20 of his 24 in the second half, but Hakim Warrick managed just four in the last 20 minutes after a 15-point first half.
Now the Huskies are a win from becoming the Final Four team they were expected to be.
Ben Gordon had 20 points, nine rebounds and five assists and UConn (30-6) beat the cold-shooting Commodores in the semifinals of the Phoenix Regional.
Rashad Anderson had 15 points and Emeka Okafor added 12 points and 11 boards for the Huskies, who staved off a 16-3 second-half spurt by Vandy that cut the lead to 52-45 on Corey Smith's jumper with 12:07 to play.
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