DAYTON, Ohio – For some 35 minutes the NCAA Tournament stage looked too big Tuesday night for Coach Ray Harper and his Cinderella kids from Western Kentucky, as the Hilltoppers struggled mightily to stay afloat in a first-round game against the Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils.
But for five minutes – the last five minutes of the game – Harper’s remarkable bunch looked right at home as Western made a furious rally to win, 59-58, and set up a meeting with No. 1-rated Kentucky this Thursday in second-round play in Louisville.
It’s nearly impossible to envision a way to see the Hilltoppers slay Goliath UK when those two teams tip around 6:40 p.m. at the Yum Center on Thursday. Then again, who was betting on Western here on Tuesday when Harper’s team trailed Mississippi Valley State, 53-37, with 5:07 left in the game?
“Wow, I don’t know where to begin,” said Harper, who became the head coach at WKU around mid-season, taking the helm of a Western team that was taking on water faster than the Titanic under the previous coach, Ken McDonald. “I keep saying about these young men, they’re resilient. They won’t quit. They were ready to play some more basketball.”
Harper admitted his team, now 16-18, played “totally out of character” most of the way against MVSU.
“We just weren’t the same basketball team for about 34, 35 minutes,” said Harper of a group of players who have made a habit of big comebacks recently in winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. “We were too much one on one. We weren’t making extra passes. We panicked against some of their pressure.
“But the one thing we never did was quit,” he added. “And you could see that look in their eyes: ‘We’re going to do this.’”
The Hilltoppers cranked up full court defensive pressure in that final 5:07, and suddenly it was the Delta Devils who had the deer in the headlights look. Mississippi Valley turned the ball over 17 times in the game, and most of them came down the stretch.
Still, it was a long road back in a short period of time for Western. The Hilltoppers didn’t get even with the Delta Devils until junior guard Jamal Crook hit a layup with 1:10 to go to knot the score at 54-54.
Freshman guard T.J. Price converted a layup and free throw with just 33 seconds left to put the Hilltoppers up, 57-54. Crook then hit two critical free throws inside the final seconds to seal the improbable win.
Freshman guard Derrick Gordon had 11 points – all in the second half – and 11 rebounds to lead a very balanced WKU attack.
Price added 11 points and eight rebounds; freshman swing man George Fant added nine points and 11 rebounds, junior center Teeng Akol had nine points and eight rebounds and Crook nine points and seven rebounds to round out the WKU leaders.
Western out-rebounded Mississippi Valley State, 60-32. That helped make up for very poor shooting from the field by the Hilltoppers – 30.6 percent on 19 of 62 shooting.
Asked if the comeback surprised him “even just a little bit,” Fant replied: “No, not really.”
“Honestly,” Fant added. “I knew my team was going to keep fighting.”
“We were rushing things early in the game, doing things we’re not normally used to doing,” Gordon said. “But with about five minutes to go, I mean, we all just turned that switch on.
“This is our first NCAA Tournament,” Gordon added, referring to this particular collection of Hilltoppers, of course. “The lights are on.”
Harper said the Hilltoppers’ late-season run shows, in so many words, that his players have a great deal of character to go along with a good bit of talent, albeit young talent.
“Well, we talked about from day one to not worry about wins and losses,” said Harper, when asked how this team is different from the one he took over earlier this season. “That will take care of itself. Let’s worry about getting better each day.
“And we really went to work on the defensive end,” he added. “If you’re going to win this time of year, you must be able to defend. And fortunately these guys bought in.”
Still, the turnaround was not immediate. Western lost several close conference games after Harper took over.
“They had plenty of chances to quit,” Harper said. “But you could see them start to believe.”
It will take a lot more than willpower to stun mighty Kentucky, of course.
When asked if the Hilltoppers can afford to fall behind UK’s Wildcats, Harper quipped: “No, we need to get ahead on the opening tip. And hope the shot clock breaks and we can hold the ball the rest of the game.
“We’re playing the best basketball team in the country,” Harper added, of Kentucky. “And I’m just happy that our kids are going to have that opportunity.”
Senior guard Kevin Burwell led Mississippi Valley State Tuesday with 20 points.
The Delta Devils, coached by former UK star Sean Woods, finished 21-14.