Western Kentucky earns a date with UK

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 13, 2012 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

DAYTON, Ohio — Mississippi Valley State gave Coach Sean Woods and college basketball fans a chance to think about revisiting his role in Kentucky's epic NCAA Tournament loss to Duke 20 years ago. Then his team took it away.

With President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron seated in the front row along one baseline, this so-called "First Four" game of the 2012 NCAA Tournament ranked first only chronologically until a improbable Western Kentucky rally made it memorable.

Western came back from 16 down in the final five minutes to win 59-58.

His team's collapse took Woods back 20 years to find words to console his players.

"I told the team the same thing Coach (Rick) Pitino told us," Woods said. "Don't let this game define your basketball career."

Neither team shot well, combining for 6-for-38 inaccuracy from three-point range. Western crippled itself with a season-high 28 turnovers. In terms of basketball, Obama and Cameron visited the rusty belt.

Mississippi Valley State led by 16 with barely five minutes to play.

"We played totally out of character for 34, 35 minutes," said Ray Harper, who was Western's interim coach until Feb. 20, when the job became permanent.

Then Western got totally into its role as comeback kids. The freshman-oriented Hilltoppers rallied from 13 down with eight minutes left to beat North Texas in the Sun Belt Tournament championship game last week.

Turnovers, quick shots and ill-advised attempts to make plays doomed Mississippi Valley State.

"Our guys got rattled," Woods said. "They got excited. Normally, when that happens, it's one or two guys. When it's all five, it was like a snowball effect."

Western, which won for the seventh time in the past eight games in which it trailed at halftime, tied it at 54-54 on Jamal Crook's putback with 1:12 left.

The Hilltoppers took the lead on a freshman T.J. Price's driving three-point play with 33.8 seconds left. Free throws capped Western's 22-5 run to win the game.

Price and fellow freshman Derrick Gordon, a high school teammate of Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, led Western with 11 points each.

Kevin Burwell led MVSU with 20 points.

The teams' combined 22 assists and 45 turnovers made this game the polar opposite of the exquisite Kentucky-Duke epic in the 1992 East Regional finals.

Despite making only 30.6 percent of its shots, Western advanced to a second-round game against No. 1-seeded Kentucky on Thursday in Louisville. Harper credited two basketball staples: defense and rebounding. The Hilltoppers outrebounded Mississippi Valley State 60-32 and grabbed an unreal 26 offensive rebounds.

By starting four seniors, Mississippi Valley State (22-12) enjoyed an advantage in experience over WKU, which started three freshmen.

Western (15-19) was the 21st team ever to make the NCAA Tournament despite a losing record. The Hilltoppers were the sixth team with a losing record to play in the First Four since the NCAA launched this preliminary doubleheader in 2001, and the fourth such team to win in this event.

On Monday, Woods said his team was "hard to deal with" when it made shots. The Delta Devils made four of 22 three-point attempts.

Would-be UK player Vinny Zollo made an impression for Western. He hit his first shot and WKU's only three-pointer of the first half from the right corner with 10:42 left. He also blocked two shots and scored six points.

It all looked for naught when Mississippi Valley State led 53-37 with 5:08 left.

"They don't quit," Harper said of his Hilltoppers. "They still believe."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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