Sunday, March 23, 2008
Tampa, Fla Western Kentucky blew another big lead, then responded with another clutch performance.
Behind Courtney Lee's dazzling array of shots early and his free throws late, the 12th-seeded Hilltoppers advanced to the round of 16 for the first time in 15 years with a 72-63 victory over No. 13 San Diego on Sunday.
Now comes the toughest test.
Western Kentucky (29-6) will face top-seeded UCLA in the West Region semifinals in Phoenix. The Hilltoppers can only hope their three senior guards - Lee, Tyrone Brazelton and Ty Rogers - will carry them through another round.
"I'm not totally surprised that we're here," Hilltoppers coach Darrin Horn said. "We thought this was a special team coming into it. ... We've been telling these guys for two years, three years really, 'If we get there, we've got a real chance to make some noise.'"
And a chance to prove how important guard play is in the tournament.
Lee, the Sun Belt Conference player of the year, finished with 29 points and seven rebounds. He had a huge 3-pointer that gave his team the lead for good with 6:17 remaining, then sank six straight free throws in the final 34 seconds to seal the victory.
Brazelton added 15 points for the Hilltoppers, who won for the 19th time in 20 games.
Rogers, who hit a 26-footer at the buzzer in overtime to beat Drake in the first round, had a much quieter afternoon offensively. He had five points, three rebounds and two assists. But he came up big on the defensive end, holding San Diego's Brandon Johnson to 4-of-15 shooting and 13 points.
"He's Mr. One Shining Moment right now," Horn said. "His defensive performance on Johnson was a huge key to the game. He had to work awful hard for what he did get, and Ty had him most of the time."
Gyno Pomare had 20 points and nine rebounds for the Toreros (22-14), who overcame a 15-point deficit in the second half before fading in the closing minutes.
Devin Ginty's 3-pointer capped an 18-2 run that turned a lopsided game, 52-37, into a nail-biter with about 6 minutes to play.
That may have been the scare the Hilltoppers needed. After all, they lost a 16-point lead to Drake before prevailing on Rogers' buzzer-beater.
This time, Lee was the go-to guy.
"He hit a big shot, but he hit big shots all day," San Diego coach Bill Grier said. "I think he's a future NBA kid. He played a terrific game at the right time."
Lee's 3-pointer came a few seconds after Ginty gave San Diego a 55-54 lead, the Toreros' first since going up 5-4 early.
Brazelton hit another 3 a few minutes later, then Western Kentucky pulled away from the free throw line as San Diego kept missing shots.
"They got us out of our comfort zone and kind of sped us up a little bit," Pomare said. "Just sped it up too much."
Considering what Lee did in the first half, it was no surprise the 6-foot-5 Indiana native got the ball in the final minute.
The Hilltoppers shot 57 percent before the break, a sizzling start that helped them open a 10-point lead in the first 10-plus minutes. They stretched it 37-23 with an 8-0 spurt just before halftime.
And Lee was San Diego's main matchup problem.
Western Kentucky's leading scorer was 8-of-11 shooting and had 19 points in the first 20 minutes.
Maybe the Toreros should have known they were in for a long afternoon when they lost the opening tip and then watched Lee drive for an easy layup.
Lee added a bank shot, two runners in the lane and finished the first half 3-for-4 from 3-point range. The Toreros switched defenders several times in an effort to slow him down, but nothing worked.
Lee was clearly feeling it. He even waived off Rogers once before hitting a pull-up jumper in the lane.
Pomare kept the Toreros close, despite 17 turnovers and 4-of-15 shooting from 3-point range. After hitting 10 of 12 shots before fouling out in Friday's game, Pomare finished 7-of-10 from the field Sunday.
"We just didn't have enough left in the tank to finish it down the stretch," Grier said.
Western Kentucky did and got back to the round of 16 for the first time since 1993. The Tops are looking for better results. They lost to Florida State 81-78 in overtime in Charlotte, N.C., to end that season.
"One of our goals was to win the conference championship so we can position ourselves to come here and play games," Lee said. "We didn't want to stop with that. We wanted to come and make noise.
"We have a great team."