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March 19, 2009PORTLAND, Ore.- Normally, the lower seeded team, particularly in the first round, may celebrate a win in the NCAA Tournament.
As the final buzzer sounded, there were few smiles or rejoicing by the winning team. Instead, it was a business-like approach of winning and moving on to the next game.
It also may have been because the victor was breathing a heavy sigh of relief.
Leading 68-51 with 6:01 left, WKU saw what looked like a reeling Illinois team throughout the game, go on a 21-6 run to cut it to two points with 8.9 seconds left.
It wasn't until the Toppers were able to in-bound the ball over the Fighting Illini press and run clock, could they be rest assured of the outcome. Junior guard Anthony Sally's free throws with under a second left provided the last bit of breathing room, as No. 12 WKU held off No. 5 Illinois 76-72 in the first round of the South Region.
"We've gotta screen better," coach Ken McDonald said. "I think their guards did a very good job running into passing lanes. That senior leadership, (Trent) Meacham comes to mind. He was really cutting through, trying to get to the passing lane. They got physical at the end of the game and we have to understand, if the refs are letting it go and it's gonna be that type of game, we have to do what we can and screening is very important and we have to cut in those situations, because possession's the biggest part of that winning."
Senior guard Trent Meacham kept the Fighting Illini in the game with a game-high 24 points.
But McDonald and the Toppers also were on the wrong end of a couple of questionable calls, both involving Sally, in the final minute and a half.
With 1:18 left, sophomore forward Steffphon Pettigrew threw an in-bounds pass in the left corner of WKU's backcourt. The pass deflected off an Illinois defender, appeared to go out of bounds, then Sally also touched it. The ball was ruled off Sally and went to the Illini.
Then, with 37.9 seconds left, Illinois sophomore guard Demetri McCamey drove to the basket in transition, with Sally skying for the block. Sally was whistled for goaltending.
But it was what the Toppers had done in the other 38 and a half minutes that propelled them to the win. All five starters scored in double figures, led by 17 points by Pettigrew. Sophomore forward Sergio Kerusch and junior guard A.J. Slaughter finished with 14 points apiece.
"Every shot is important," Kerusch said. "You've gotta make every shot that you can. It was just real important that we hit the easy ones when we got some open looks. Trade the good shot for the great shot, as Coach Mac always says."
The three-point shot was also in full rhythm for the victor. WKU hit 9-10 shots from behind the arc.
"Illinois takes away the three and I thought we had to get to the paint and make the extra pass," McDonald said "We still could've done a better job actually making some extra passes and not taking some tough shots. That got us in a little bit of a predicament in the first half and in the second half, we could've really opened up the lead, I thought, if we'd have made a couple of extra passes. When we did make extra passes, we found open threes."
And though Illinois had bigger post players, specifically 7-foot-1 sophomore center Mike Tisdale, WKU held a 35-28 rebounding advantage. Kerusch tallied a game-high 11 rebounds.
"Before the game, we talked about heart," he said. "That was the game plan, pour your heart out, because it is win or go home and in these type of situations. They caused matchup problems. They had a bigger lineup, but our guys, Pettigrew, Jeremy (Evans), they battled off inside and they helped get a lot of rebounds."
Maybe the selection committee didn't quite give the Toppers enough respect with their seeding. But being about all about business, they didn't groan or gripe.
"Pretty much, I thought that they did a good job with the seeding," senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez said. "I thought we got a good draw. There was no complaints. We just wanted to come out here and play our basketball and let the game speak for itself."
The Toppers didn't need to celebrate a so-called upset. They've said before that they expected to be here and expected to win.
"When you have a lead of about ten points and it disappears in two minutes, you're gonna get nervous," Kerusch said. "It was just exciting and nail-biting to the end. They had great players who made great plays. Some of our guys made turnovers. It was just a great game."
Business continues for WKU Saturday at 7:10 CT, when the Toppers take on No. 4 seed Gonzaga in the second round at the Rose Garden.