DAYTON, Ohio – Notes and quotes from Tuesday’s first round NCAA Tournament game here, won, 59-58, by Western Kentucky over the Delta Devils of Mississippi Valley State:
Mississippi Valley State head coach Sean Woods knows something about heartbreak on a basketball court.
Woods was – all together now – the University of Kentucky guard who hit an apparent game-winner in the East Region final against Duke in 1992, with 2.1 seconds left, only to see Christian Laettner crush the hearts of the Wildcats with a last-second jumper from the top of the key.
Woods thought back to that night on Tuesday after his MVSU team blew a 53-37 lead with five minutes to go against Western Kentucky, with the opportunity of moving on to a second-round meeting with top-ranked Kentucky on the line.
“Highs and lows, man, that’s college basketball,” Woods said when asked to compare the two moments of immense disappointment. “The difference is I’m not playing.”
Woods said he referred back to the loss to Duke in talking to this bunch of Delta Devils after Tuesday’s defeat.
“I told my guys in the locker room the same thing that Coach (Rick) Pitino told us when we lost to Duke back in 1992, and that was: ‘Don’t let this game define your basketball career,’” Woods said. “Because you’ve gone over and beyond the expectations for a school of our magnitude and the trials and tribulations that we have.
“It’s unfortunate the way it ended,” Woods added. “But I’m still proud of my guys. The same guys that made the mistakes down the stretch are the same guys that helped me win 17 in a row.”
Woods said he did not allow himself to think about possibly playing his alma mater, Kentucky, in Thursday’s second round of the NCAA Tournament. That honor goes instead to Western.
“Everybody knows I played at UK, and there’s a lot of history there and sentimental feelings there,” Woods said. “I was only thinking about Western Kentucky University, I promise you. This was a game we thought we should have won, and then we were going to go against the No. 1 team in the country.
“But this was the most important deal up to this point.”
The most poignant moment of the WKU-MVSU game came in the post-game handshake line, as senior guard Kevin Burwell of the Delta Devils broke down in tears. One by one, the Western players tried to comfort Burwell, several with hugs.
And the longest hug Burwell received was from Western coach Ray Harper. The two embraced for several seconds, with Harper seemingly determined not to let go until he was confident Burwell would remain standing.
Harper’s gesture was the kind of class that can make sports in general, and the NCAA Tournament in particular, so special.
Obama was there, too
The game was attended by President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who sat front row in one of the end zones, while secret service people at the Dayton Arena no doubt added considerably to the game’s attendance. I ran into a lot of, “You can’t go this way, sir” at this game.
“I mean, for him to be in the house, it was a crazy feeling,” said Western freshman guard Derrick Gordon, referring to the president. “That’s the President of the United States coming to watch our game. But I really didn’t look at him much while the game was going on because we had to worry about taking care of our business.
“But,” Gordon added, “we wanted to put on a show. I’m sure he liked what he saw.”