In fact, they hadn't won an NCAA tournament game since Vitale was their coach in 1977, well before he became college basketball's high-volume, fast-talking, television mouthpiece.
Well, the Titans are P-T-Pers once again after outlasting St. John's 66-64 Friday night in the first round of the Midwest Regional.
"It's a tremendous accomplishment, not just for the players and coaches but for our university and our city," said Perry Watson, who in his fifth season finally pulled off the NCAA victory Detroit's first five post-Vitale coaches couldn't. "I didn't talk to Dick before the game, but I'll bet I talk to him now."
Derrick Hayes scored 27 points for 10th-seeded Detroit (25-5), which will play in Sunday's second round against Purdue (27-7). The Boilermakers, the region's No. 2 seed, routed Delaware 95-56.
"We wanted to show the nation we can play," said Hayes, the only Detroit player in double figures. "It is no fluke."
Tyrone Grant scored 14 points for seventh-seeded St. John's (22-10), which was making its first NCAA appearance in five years.
"I thought it would a junkyard dog kind of game and it was. A lot of city kids out there playing hard," Red Storm coach Fran Fraschilla said. "We didn't have any one guy have a breakout game like Derrick Hayes did, and that was maybe the difference."
Felipe Lopez, in his final game for St. John's, couldn't match Hayes' production.
A heralded recruit four years ago, Lopez finished as the Red Storm's No. 3 scorer with 1,927 points but still never quite lived up to expectations.
He had 11 points on 4-for-16 shooting Friday, missed a tying 3-pointer with about 15 seconds left and a potential winning 3-pointer just before the final horn. He fell to the court in anguish after his second miss.
"I thought about all my years at St. John's," Lopez said when asked what went through his mind as he looked up at the United Center ceiling. "I realized today was our last game as seniors ... and I had the opportunity right in my hand."
Lopez hit a 3-pointer with 31 seconds left and after Hayes made two free throws, Lopez sank another 3-pointer as St. John's pulled to 65-62. Lopez was fouled on the second and missed his free throw but Detroit's EJ Haralson landed out of bounds with the rebound.
Grant hit two free throws to make it 65-64. Hayes made a foul shot but missed another and St. John's rebounded with 11 seconds left.
Lopez had an open look from about 22 feet but the ball hit the rim and bounced away. St. John's Zendon Hamilton grabbed the rebound and couldn't get a shot up in time.
"That's all you hink about, your college career coming down to one last shot, and obviously I couldn't get it done," Lopez said.
As the horn sounded, the Titans celebrated near midcourt. They matched the school victory mark set in 1976-77, Vitale's final season there, and equaled in 1977-78.
"I didn't even know Dick Vitale coached at Detroit until after I got here," Titans center Brian Alexander said. "Hopefully, he'll talk about us now and wake up some people around the country who didn't know who we were and why we were invited to this tournament."
Hayes made a 3-pointer with 5:20 to play, giving Detroit its biggest lead, 56-49. Lopez responded with a 20-foot jumper and Ron Artest followed with a 3-pointer to make it 56-54 with 3@1/2 minutes to go.
Hayes hit a 15-foot jumper with 3 minutes left. Jermaine Jackson made a free throw to give Detroit a five-point lead. Grant's rebound basket pulled the Red Storm to 59-56 before the Titans made four free throws to reopen a seven-point advantage.
Then it came down to Lopez's 3-pointers those he made and missed.
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