College Basketball Nation: Kevin Burwell



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.”

Freshmen Gordon (11 points, 11 rebounds), T.J. Price (11 points, 8 rebounds) and George Fant (9 points, 11 rebounds) led that that game-winning charge.

[+] EnlargePresident Barack Obama
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesPresident Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron took in Western Kentucky's comeback win over Mississippi Valley State.
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.

DAYTON, Ohio -- Reaction from Western Kentucky's 59-58 win over Mississippi Valley State:

Overview: Western Kentucky and Mississippi Valley State kicked off the NCAA tournament Tuesday night at the University of Dayton Arena. The stakes were both clear and daunting. The winner would face No. 1 Kentucky in the second round the Big Dance.

But that seemed just as important as the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in front of a president. President Obama took British prime minister David Cameron to the First Four matchup.

Obama was the center of attention, but he didn’t witness anything spectacular, especially in the first half when the two teams combined for a 2-for-14 clip from beyond the arc. Western Kentucky recorded six field goals and 13 turnovers before halftime. Mississippi Valley wasn’t much better. The Delta Devils were outrebounded 25-18 before halftime.

But the game changed in the second half. An 11-0 run gave the Delta Devils a 47-36 edge with 8:19 to go in the second half. In the final minutes, however, the Hilltoppers recovered with a 15-0 run to cut a 16-point deficit to one point with 2:27 to play.

With 1:06 to go, the Hilltoppers and Delta Devils were tied. It finally felt like March.

T.J. Price scored on a layup and drew the foul with 33.8 seconds to play to put the Hilltoppers up by three. It was a crucial sequence. The Delta Devils had a shot to tie the game at the buzzer, but Kevin Burwell's 3-point attempt missed.

And now, the Hilltoppers will face the favorites to win the whole show. But they gave spectators a thrilling finish in the first official game of the NCAA tournament.

Turning point: After trailing by 16 points, the Hilltoppers stayed alive with that late run in the second half.

Key player: Western Kentucky's Price and Derrick Gordon both had 11 points. Price’s three-point play in the final minute was crucial.

Key stats: The Hilltoppers ended the game on a 22-5 run and won the rebounding battle, 60-32.

Miscellaneous: Wow. This was a bad game early. But the finish was wild. True March Madness. … Burwell scored 20 points. During the game he gestured toward the president after big plays, and at one point Obama winked and pointed at the guard.

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