DAYTON, Ohio -- “Wow. I don’t know where to begin.”
That’s how Ray Harper started his postgame news conference following his team’s 59-58 win over Mississippi Valley State on Tuesday at the University of Dayton Arena.
With President Barack Obama sitting courtside, the Hilltoppers recovered from a 16-point deficit in the final five minutes of their First Four win over the Delta Devils. It was the third time in four games they overcame a double-digit disadvantage.
They were down by 13 against both Arkansas-Little Rock and North Texas in the Sun Belt tournament but came back to win both games.
Against the Delta Devils, they were doomed by turnovers (27) and a first half in which the Hilltoppers recorded six field goals. They went 2-for-16 from beyond the arc.
But a late push -- the largest comeback in the final five minutes of an NCAA tournament game -- changed everything as Obama looked on with British prime minister David Cameron. The Hilltoppers, a team that features seven freshmen, admitted Obama’s presence caused some anxiety.
“For him to be in the house, that’s a crazy feeling. That’s the president of the United States coming to watch our game,” freshman Derrick Gordon said. “I’m sure he liked what he saw.”
Price’s three-point play with 33 seconds to go was a crucial sequence that put the Hilltoppers ahead by three. Late free throws sealed the win.
The Delta Devils’ Kevin Burwell (20 points), who’d pointed and nodded toward the president after some of his big plays, had a chance to tie the game but missed a 3-pointer near the buzzer.
Western Kentucky finished with a 53-30 rebounding margin and a 19-11 advantage in second-chance points.
The Hilltoppers might lose to Kentucky by a large margin in the second round. Doesn’t matter.
They’ve already won.
Their former coach, Ken McDonald, was fired in January following a rocky start. Harper took over and led the program to a Sun Belt tournament title even though it possessed a sub-.500 record in conference play (7-9).
“We’re a tougher team,” Fant said about the change the program has made under Harper. “We’re going to defend you the whole game.”
The same grit the Hilltoppers have used to salvage what started out as a 5-11 season and evolved into a team that’s won an NCAA tournament game emerged during the final minutes of their win over the Delta Devils.
Down 53-37 with 5:06 to go, the Hilltoppers relied on past experiences and didn’t panic. They closed the game with a 22-5 rally that included seven MVSU turnovers.
“They were ready to play some more basketball,” Harper said.
As the Delta Devils crumbled in the final minutes, Obama turned to Cameron and made a ‘T’ with his hands before calling for a MVSU “timeout.” Even the president could sense that the Delta Devils were unraveling.
It was an intriguing conclusion to an ugly game. For Western Kentucky, it was another chapter for a team that’s refused to allow its earlier drama to define its season.
“I knew my team was going to keep on fighting,” Fant said.