The team with the losing record pulled off the most fantastic 5-minute finish in NCAA tournament history.
The most surprising thing? Western Kentucky didn’t even think it was all that extraordinary.
It was, in every way.
With a president and a prime minister sitting in the front row behind the basket, the Hilltoppers turned up their full-court press and overcame a 16-point deficit in the last 5 minutes on Tuesday night. Their 59-58 victory over Mississippi Valley State christened it as the tournament of comebacks.
Who better to do it than the longest of long shots?
“Wow,” coach Ray Harper said, his face still flush with March emotion. “I don’t know where to begin.”
With the comeback, of course. There’s never been one quite like it.
T.J. Price’s three-point play with 33 seconds to go completed the Hilltoppers’ unprecedented rally in front of President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who headed out at the buzzer.
The NCAA called it the biggest deficit overcome in the final 5 minutes of a tournament game. The previous best: Illinois overcame a 15-point deficit in the last 5 minutes to beat Arizona 90-89 in overtime in a regional final in 2005.
“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 only squad with a losing record in the 68-team field get out of its own way long enough to do something special. The Hilltoppers (16-18) shot only 30 percent from the field, turned the ball over an incredible 28 times and won.
The Hilltoppers have rallied from double-digit deficits in each of their last three games, including two in the Sun Belt Conference tournament. Their latest comeback was the biggest of them all.
“We’re used to doing it,” Gordon said. “We did it all throughout the Sun Belt tournament. No matter how much we were losing by, we were just going to keep on fighting until the buzzer went off. That’s something that teams don’t know about us.”
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.”
Obama – an avid basketball fan who fills out an NCAA bracket each year – spent a lot of time explaining the nuances of the game to Cameron. Obama has picked Kentucky as one of his Final Four teams.
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’s automatic berth.
And here they were on Tuesday, making an even bigger comeback in the NCAA tournament before an audience that seemed to add to both teams’ jitters at the outset.
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.
MVSU led most of the way and seemed to have everything in control until Western Kentucky went to a full-court press.
“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 with a 3 in the closing seconds. Cor-J Cox had a putback at the buzzer that left the Delta Devils a point short.
SOURCE: The Associated Press