|Mississippi Valley State guard William Pugh hands his head after the team lost 59-58 to Western Kentucky in the opening game of the NCAA college basketball tournament, Tuesday, March 13, 2012, in Dayton, Ohio. (AP Photo/Skip Peterson)|
WKU rallies to beat MVSU 59-58 in NCAA opener
DAYTON, Ohio—Senior guard William Pugh crouched, bowed his head and put his right hand on the floor to steady his suddenly wobbly legs, trying to take it in.
How could Mississippi Valley State let a 16-point lead slip away in the final 5 minutes? Against a team that played like it was more suited to a loser's bracket for 35 minutes?
The only team with a losing record in the NCAA tournament got it started with a classic March comeback on Tuesday night -- in front of a presidential audience, no less. T.J. Price's three-point play with 33 seconds to go completed Western Kentucky's rally from a 16-point deficit for a 59-58 victory.
Just stunning all around.
"I thought this is a game we could have won, should have won," MVSU coach Sean Woods said.
President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron had front-row seats to see the tournament open with a ragged game that had an engrossing ending. He saw the longest of long shots somehow pull out another one.
The Hilltoppers (16-18) are the only squad in the 68-team field with a losing record. They played like it for most of the game, shooting only 30 percent and turning the ball over 28 times.
After the buzzer sounded, Obama and Cameron headed out, fans still buzzing over what had just happened.
"I thought it was just our guys got rattled, got excited, and got a little bit beside themselves," 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."
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) was hoping to make the trip south and provide a nostalgic moment for Woods, who was a star at Kentucky and has his No. 11 jersey hanging from the rafters in Rupp Arena.
He was part of Kentucky's 1992 team that lost in the regional final to Duke in one of college basketball's most famous games. He had 21 points, including a 10-foot bank shot with 2.9 seconds left that put the Wildcats ahead. Christian Laettner hit a turnaround jumper at the buzzer that sent the Blue Devils on their way to the national title.
"I told my guys in the locker room the same thing that coach (Rick) Pitino told us when I lost to Duke back in 1992," Woods said. "And that was: Don't let this game define your basketball career, especially here at Mississippi Valley State University."
MVSU got the president's eye as it pulled ahead. Kevin Burwell scored 20 points and locked eyes with Obama after hitting a 3 right in front of him while MVSU built that big second-half lead. The president 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 -- a huge 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 Ray 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 Conference title and its automatic berth, overcoming double-digit deficits in the last two.
And here they were on Tuesday, doing it again 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.
With a win only minutes away, the Delta Devils came apart against a full-court press, repeatedly losing the ball as they tried to rush down the court.
Burwell had a chance to tie the game in the closing seconds, shooting another 3 in front of Obama. It missed and Cor-J Cox had a putback at the buzzer that left the Delta Devils a point short.