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November 30, 2008

Western Kentucky stuns No. 3 Louisville

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Western Kentucky isn't done shocking the college basketball world.

Eight months after their run to the Sweet 16, the Hilltoppers pulled off perhaps the biggest upset of the first month of this young season by knocking off No. 3 Louisville 68-54 on Sunday afternoon at the Sommet Center, the home of the NHL's Nashville Predators, in front of a half-filled arena of 8,193 fans.

Sunday's win was more shocking than the NCAA tournament run.

Western Kentucky (3-2) lost by 28 points at Murray State eight days ago. Three of their top four scorers are gone, including star guard Courtney Lee - a first-round draft pick. Former coach Darrin Horn also left to replace Dave Odom at South Carolina.

Louisville (2-1) is fully expected to be in the national title hunt. The Cardinals return four starters from an Elite Eight run and have a roster loaded with future NBA players. The Cards opened the season by rolling past Morehead State by 38 points and then hammering South Alabama, a Sun Belt rival of Western, by 27.

Western Kentucky junior guard A.J. Slaughter, who poured in a career-high 27 points, said he sensed the Cards believed they would do the same to the Hilltoppers.

"I told our guys, 'I didn't think they were ready to play,' " Slaughter said. "I said, 'Let's go out and throw a knockout blow.' I thought they were overlooking us."

The upset was especially sweet for Slaughter, who was not recruited by Louisville despite growing up as a Cardinlas fan about 30 minutes from the campus of the Big East school in Shelbyville, Ky. Slaughter's sister, Toni, also played for the Cards in 2006-07 (she transferred from Cincinnati) and his sister, Antonita, is a high school junior who has committed to the Cards.

"For me this is right up there with the Sweet 16," Slaughter said. "I can't explain how it feels. We were all jumping around at the end like it was the NCAA Tournament."

Slaughter isn't nearly as athletic as Lee, and at 6-foot-3, 180-pounds lacks the powerful frame of the former Western star (Lee is listed at 6-5, 200). However, Slaughter's combination of quickness and a lightning-fast release makes him a dangerous scorer.

In the final seconds of the first half, Slaughter took a pass from D.J. Magley, dribbled up court and fired up a deep 3-pointer on the run that rattled home and tied the score at 28 as the buzzer sounded. Slaughter went on to hit an 18-foot jumper that capped a key 6-0 run and put the Hilltoppers up 59-48 with 3:35 remaining. He also hit three of four throws in the final minutes to seal the outcome and finished with a career-high nine rebounds.

"A.J. loves to shoot with the clock winding down," said Western's first-year coach Ken McDonald, who spent the last four years as an assistant at Texas. "I've seen him hit that same shot in practice about 15 times. He's that kind of player."

The game was a "home" game for Western Kentucky, which is approximately one hour from Nashville. The crowd was split about 50-50 between Hilltopper and Cardinals fans.

Slaughter's heroics may have been wasted if not for another native of Kentucky. Sophomore Steffphon Pettigrew, who was named Kentucky's Mr. Basketball at Elizabethtown (Ky.) High, scored 17 points and set a career-high with 12 rebounds.

But Pettigrew's best work came on the defensive end, where the 6-5, 225-pounder led a group effort to slow down Louisville's prize freshman, Samardo Samuels. Listed at 6-9, 260, Samuels finished with 11 points and took only seven shots from the field (making three) after averaging 21 points in his first two games. Terrence Williams led Louisville with 19 points.

"They did a good job keeping the ball out of Samardo's hands," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "You can't give (Western) enough credit. They played great and executed We had awful week of practice. We just didn't work hard and you reap what you sow. We deserved (this)."

Louisville, which faced a zone for much of the game, shot the ball horribly. The Cardinals shot 26 percent (15 of 56) from the field and 20 percent (6-for-30) from 3-point range.

Their guards were the main culprits. Starters Preston Knowles and Andre McGee and reserve Edgar Sosa combined to go 1-for-17 from the floor. Jerry Smith, who was Louisville's top 3-point shooter last season, did not attempt a shot and fouled out in 14 minutes of play.

But, those weren't the most alarming stats of the night for Louisville. Western, despite being undersized at every position on the court, had 48 rebounds to the Cardinals' 38.

Pitino blamed much of that on the guards. Knowles, McGee, Sosa and Smith combined for only five boards.

"We're bigger, but we don't rebound well," Pitino said. "Last year our guards rebounded the ball, but our guards are not grabbing rebounds. That is the difference."

McDonald said it has taken some time for the players to adjust and put their faith in the new coaches. This victory may have everyone convinced.

"With all the change there is a little disbelief," McDonald said. "We are still trying to get our system in place, and until you go out there and win talk is cheap. We've talked about how hard have to play and how hard we have to focus to win and we finally put our foot down and did it."

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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