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March 21, 2009

Last Second Shot Sends Tops Home

PORTLAND, Ore.- This seems so familiar.

Tyus Edney did it in 1995. Christian Laettner did it in 1992. WKU pulled the miracle last year when Ty Rogers hit an off-balanced three pointer as time expired.

But this time, the Toppers were the victims.

Sophomore forward Steffphon Pettigrew tipped in an errant three-point attempt by junior guard A.J. Slaughter to tie the game at 81 with 7.9 seconds left.

That was just enough time for Gonzaga.

Freshman guard Demetri Goodson took the in-bounds pass and raced the length of the court, driving the left side of the lane and banking in a runner with .9 seconds left.

WKU senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez then had one of the only shots he couldn't hit all night with a last heave that fell short, giving the Bulldogs an 83-81 win and sending Gonzaga to the Sweet 16 to face North Carolina Friday.

"They just threw the ball in, ran as hard as they could down the court and got a good shot," Pettigrew said. "There's nothing else we could do about that."

Mendez-Valdez did all he could to keep his senior season going for the Toppers. He connected on 9-12 field goals, 7-10 three-pointers, for a game-high 25 points. All night, he hit tough shots well beyond the three-point arc and found ways to create space for his shots when there seemingly were none.

"I just wanted to come out aggressive," Mendez-Valdez said. "I knew if I came out aggressive at the beginning, it would open up a lot of things for other guys. Not necessarily aggressive scoring, just getting into the paint and looking for the open guys."

With 2:14 remaining, it looked to be all over for WKU. The cool, calm and collected Toppers still had their swagger, however.

Slaughter hit a jumper then Mendez-Valdez hit a deep three from 23 feet. Gonzaga junior guard Matt Bouldin then had the ball stolen from him at half-court by Slaughter, who flipped the ball to Pettigrew for a breakaway layup. Just like that, the Bulldogs' lead was down to 81-79.

"There's just something about the team," Mendez-Valdez said. "A lot of us just believed. I saw a lot of the crowd leaving and it just got quiet. Our guys just kept their heads up and still believed. At this time of the season, the NCAA Tournament, anything can happen. You see that happen many years and I knew it was gonna come down to the last possession and that's why I just kept my composure."

WKU was forced to keep its composure even when Mendez-Valdez picked up his third foul just nine seconds into the second half. He subbed out and sat out for just over five minutes before returning.

"It affected us in a couple of ways," coach Ken McDonald said. "(Anthony) Sally came in and did a good job. Anthony came in and did a good job being aggressive and defending. We weren't as good a defensive unit. When he went back in the game, I had to go some zone so he didn't pick up another foul."

That last winning possession came from an unlikely hero for Gonzaga. Goodson played just 14 minutes during the game and had made his only shot attempt up to that point, a jumper midway through the first half. He was ready for the ball when the time came.

"I drove left and it was two guys there and the big kind of went with, I think Matt," Goodson said. "So it opened up the lane, so I just took it. I was really surprised to get that look."

It's the last game Mendez-Valdez will play in Toppers uniform, along with forwards Mike Walker, Matt Maresca and Japeth Aguilar. But the program is in a good place, Mendez-Valdez thinks.

"Just like in the huddle, I told the guys they've got a good squad coming in next year," he said. "They got a taste of what it feels like and I strongly believe they can be here next year and be in the same situation. No doubt with the guys coming in and the guys they have already and especially with Coach Mac leading the way."

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