W. Kentucky ralllies to win NCAA opener
DAYTON, Ohio — So many things happened in those five final, furious minutes that Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper had trouble taking it all in.
“Wow,” he said, his face still flush with March emotion. “I don’t know where to begin.”
How about with that finish?
The only team with a losing record in the NCAA tournament got it started with a classic March comeback — in front of a presidential audience, no less. T.J. Price’s three-point play with 33 seconds to go completed the Hilltoppers’ rally from a 16-point deficit over the last 5 minutes for a 59-58 victory over Mississippi Valley State on Tuesday night.
“It’s a crazy feeling,” said Derrick Gordon, who had 11 points. “That’s the president of the United States coming to watch our game. We wanted to put on a show. Things didn’t work our way for the first 35 minutes, but we came away with the W.
“I’m sure he liked what he saw.”
He saw the longest of long shots somehow pull out another one.
The Hilltoppers (16-18) are the only squad in the 68-team field with a losing record. They played like it for most of the game, shooting only 30 percent and turning the ball over 28 times.
“You could see that look in their eyes: ‘We’re going to do this,’” Harper said.
Western Kentucky moves on to play Kentucky — the top seed in the South Regional — on Thursday in Louisville, an all-Bluegrass game for the second round.
MVSU (21-13) caught the president’s eye while pulling ahead, but couldn’t close it out. Kevin Burwell scored 20 points and locked eyes with the president after swishing a 3-pointer while the Delta Devils built their big lead. Obama smiled back.
“Like I said yesterday, we were just trying to put on a show for him,” Burwell said. “In the heat of the moment, I just pointed at him a couple of times. That was it.”
A smaller school from a corner of the commonwealth became the star of the First Four.
The Hilltoppers were the losers’ favorite in the bracket — the first team since Coppin State in 2009 to make it to the tournament with a losing record.
And that didn’t even begin to tell their story.
A team featuring seven freshmen lost 11 of its first 16 games. The low point came on Jan. 5, when Louisiana-Lafayette somehow managed to get six players on the floor for the winning shot in overtime. And that wasn’t the worst indignity that day. Only 2,137 fans took advantage of a $1 ticket promotion, showing that very few considered the Hilltoppers worth a buck.
The next day, coach Ken McDonald was fired, replaced by Harper, an assistant. The Hilltoppers responded by losing their next three games.
Slowly, they grew form a young, bad team into one that found its stride at tournament time. They won four games in four days for the Sun Belt Conference title and its automatic berth, overcoming double-digit deficits in the last two.
And here they were on Tuesday, doing it again in the NCAA tournament before an audience that seemed to add to both teams’ jitters at the outset.
“This is something new for us,” Gordon said. “The lights are on. We were rushing. With 5 minutes left to go, we all turned that switch on. We decided we were not ready to go home.”
There was no avoiding the guest list. During the first timeout, photographers from the White House press corps went on the court to snap photos. The two referees on that side of the court shook the president’s hand.
At one point, Obama explained a goaltending call to the prime minister — the only really good play in the sloppy opening minutes. Western Kentucky missed 11 of its first 13 shots and had five turnovers.
At that point, it might have reminded the president of some of those pick-up games he plays for fun in Washington.
Burwell took the game into his hands at the start of the second half. He made sure he got the president’s attention after hitting a 3 in front of him, turning to make an eye connection.
With a win only minutes away, the Delta Devils came apart against a full-court press, repeatedly losing the ball as they tried to rush down the court.
“I thought it was just our guys got rattled, got excited, and got a little bit beside themselves,” coach Sean Woods said. “Normally in a situation like that, maybe it’s one guy or two. But when it’s all five, it was like a snowball effect.” Burwell had a chance to tie the game in the closing seconds, shooting another 3 in front of Obama. It missed and Cor-J Cox had a putback at the buzzer that left the Delta Devils a point short.