Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Western Kentucky puts on show for president

Mississippi Valley State Coach Sean Woods yelled behind Luka Pajkovic. Woods said he told his players not to let the loss define their careers.
Mississippi Valley State Coach Sean Woods yelled behind Luka Pajkovic. Woods said he told his players not to let the loss define their careers. AP

DAYTON, Ohio — President Barack Obama presumably wanted British Prime Minister David Cameron to experience a slice of Americana.

The Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers gave Cameron a dose of March Madness at its most "barmy."

Down to Mississippi Valley State 53-37 with 4:51 left in the first contest of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, WKU ended the game on a 22-5 run to claim a 59-58 victory over Coach Sean Woods' Delta Devils before a crowd that included Obama and Cameron in the University of Dayton Arena.

With the two most powerful men in the English-speaking world seated beneath one basket, No. 16-seed Western (16-18) rode its rally for the ages into a matchup with intrastate rival and No. 1 overall seed Kentucky Thursday in Louisville.

"Wow. I don't know what to say about these young men," said Western Coach Ray Harper. "I guess all you can say is, they were ready to play more basketball."

From start to finish, there was nothing normal about this one.

With the heads of government of both the United States and United Kingdom slated to attend the First Four, security was tighter than a fat man's pants. Even the teams had to wait in line to pass through an airport-style X-ray machine just to get inside the arena.

In the first half Cameron must have been wishing Obama had taken him to something more exciting, like a paint drying.

Western shot 6-for-24 before halftime, turned over the ball a whopping 13 times and still trailed by only four, 23-19. The Toppers were close only because MVSU hit nine of 30 shots and got outrebounded 25-17.

Behind the scalding shooting of point guard Kevin Burwell, however, MVSU roared out of intermission and took control. With 4:51 left, the Delta Devils led 53-37.

Then, quicker than you could say "what is bloody happening?" Cameron got March Madness.

WKU unleashed a furious full-court press, and MVSU continually turned over the ball.

George Fant, Derrick Gordon, O'karo Akamune, Jamal Crook and T.J. Price all made big shots for WKU. Price's old-fashioned three-point play with 33 seconds left gave WKU the lead for good.

It was hard not to feel sorry for Woods. In his last NCAA Tournament game as a player, the ex-Kentucky guard hit a running, 12-foot bank shot with 2.1 seconds left in overtime that gave UK a 103-102 lead over top-ranked Duke. Then Christian Laettner trumped it.

In his first NCAA tourney as a head coach, Woods watched his team lose a 16-point lead in the final five minutes.

Mississippi Valley State (21-13) had started the season 1-11 while touring the country playing a who's who of big-name foes for guaranteed money. MVSU finished by winning 20 of its final 22.

"I told our guys the same thing Coach (Rick) Pitino told us after we lost to Duke in 1992: Don't let this game define your basketball career," Woods said. "It's highs and lows, college basketball. The difference is, I'm not playing. But I'm proud of our guys, what they've accomplished. I'm just very disappointed how it ended."

Of course, WKU lives to fight another day. The Hilltoppers now get Kentucky.

The story lines when Toppers meet Cats are rich.

How will Western's Gordon feel about playing against his former St. Patrick High School teammate, UK's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?

Said Gordon: "It'll be real good to see him but, when the ball is thrown in the air, that's my enemy."

How will Western's Fant, an undersized 6-5 power forward, feel about going up against UK shot-blocking specialist Anthony Davis?

"I'll just try to be physical with him and play the best I can," the 240-pound Warren Central product said. "I'm not worrying about getting my shot blocked. You're not a good player if you've never had a shot blocked."

How will ex-Clark County standout and Western forward Vinny Zollo fare against UK, the school for which he once planned to play?

"Any time you get a kid from Kentucky and it's WKU versus Kentucky, it's going to be a big night for them," Harper said.

Western, which had 28 turnovers and shot 19-for-62 against MVSU, will need to play about 100 percent better Thursday to even be close with Kentucky.

So does WKU have a hope in heck to become the first No. 16 ever to beat a No. 1 seed?

Said Harper: "We need to go ahead on the opening tip and let the shot clock break. Then hold the ball the rest of the game."