Nahariya's Hill recalls run to the final

This season marks the first time since 1980 that none of the NCAA's top seeds reached the Final Four.

otis hill 298.88 (photo credit: Syracuse University Athletics)
otis hill 298.88
(photo credit: Syracuse University Athletics)
Predicting the road to the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I men's basketball championship game has never been an exact science, but this year has just been utterly ridiculous. This season marks the first time since 1980 that none of the top seeds reached the Final Four, with the story of 11th-seeded George Mason among the biggest Cinderella stories of all time. Fighting as an underdog to get to the championship game is not unfamiliar to Ironi Nahariya star Otis Hill. As a junior at Syracuse in 1995/96, Hill helped lead his fourth-seeded Orangemen all the way to the title game where they fell to top-seeded Kentucky, 76-67. Hill's Syracuse, much like the four teams that survived to make it to the final weekend of this year's tournament, thrived off of disrespect. "When you've got every paper in the country saying 'Otis Hill is too small, Syracuse is not deep enough, the zone can't win,' it's tough," Hill said. "From the beginning of the tournament, it seemed like after each win there were more bad things said about us. We took it very personally." Hill, who at 2.02 meters played as an undersized center, recalled one incident of disrespect that especially awoke the beast in him. Prior to Syracuse's regional final battle with Kansas, one of Hill's assistant coaches taped onto his locker a newspaper article in which Kansas big men Raef LaFrentz and Scot Pollard had choice words about him. "They said something like, 'We don't know who the center is. He's a [2.02-m.] guy, we don't even care about him," Hill recalled. "My first points of the game were a dunk on LaFrentz, an 'and one.' That was like, 'Now you're going to know who I am.' You can't just disrespect me. When you get talked about you've got to step up or hide, and I wasn't going to hide." SYRACUSE WON the game, 60-57, behind 15 points from Hill, to move on to the Final Four in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where it dispatched favored Mississippi State and advanced to the final against Kentucky. Much like George Mason, UCLA, and LSU, the 1995/96 Syracuse team was propelled to further success in the tournament by a thrilling victory that has a special place in tournament lore. In the Sweet Sixteen, Syracuse fought an overtime battle with Georgia, winning 83-81 on a now-famous last second shot by All-American John Wallace. Hill, who had fouled out earlier in the game, claimed that he never even saw Wallace's shot until he watched the videotape two years later. "I'm laying on the floor," Hill said of the buzzer-beater. "I had fouled out, played a great game, but not to be a part of that last two minutes was like a slow death. When I heard our crowd go crazy I knew we were all right." HE CONTENDED that the emotional win - much like George Mason's classic triumph over Connecticut, LSU's buzzer-beater over Texas A&M, and UCLA's miracle comeback over Gonzaga - pushed Syracuse to the next level. "We didn't face a game all year that went to the wire like that," he said. "For us to win that game got us over the hump." The championship stage did not faze Hill, who played in front of huge crowds in the Big East on a constant basis, he said. One overwhelming moment captivated him though. "I was walking into the lobby of the hotel and there were 10,000 Syracuse fans," he said. "I had chills. When I got on the bus I was charged." In contrast to the atmosphere not fazing him, the magnitude of the game weighed heavily upon him. "I was nervous," Hill said. "This was - or it could be - the biggest game of my life. Everybody in the states and across the world will watch this game. This game could make or break me being in the NBA. "It's what every college basketball player dreams of. If you're a basketball player and you're not nervous, you're not ready. We were going against one of the greatest college basketball teams ever assembled, and we had a chance to become the greatest." Kentucky's 1995/96 squad featured future NBA players Antoine Walker, Derek Anderson, Ron Mercer, Walter McCarty and Tony Delk, and the Wildcats were coached by legend Rick Pitino. HILL SAID that the nerves went away after about a minute and did not affect his play because he was so focused, but when Syracuse fell to the Wildcats, he shouldered a lot of the blame for failing to bring the championship to the Orangemen. "I thought it was all my fault, because I didn't play my best game," said Hill, who scored seven points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the final. "Kentucky had double teamed me - out of respect - and it proved to be the toughest double team of my life. Kentucky went about 10 guys deep, and every four to five minutes they switched different guys on me. It was amazing. We didn't think they were going to double me that much." He took the loss extremely hard, "crying like a baby" in his hotel room after the game and thinking that it was a waste to get that far just to lose, he said. But after having time to reflect on what Syracuse accomplished, his stance changed. "When we got home it was crazy," he said. "In the airport there were maybe six or seven thousand people and they cheered us on, saying 'We love you guys. You gave it everything you had.'" Hill continues to follow college hoops and thinks that the tournament is as exciting as ever. "It doesn't matter what seed you are anymore," he said. "The beginning games go to the wire when they used to be blowouts. Now everybody's scared to play the first-round games. "It's been one of the best tournaments ever." On TV: NCAA Division I men's basketball championship final, Florida vs UCLA (tape delay 9:30 p.m.-midnight on METV and 2:30-5 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.-midnight on ESPN).