Saturday, March 23, 2013 1:29 am
Western Kentucky falls short against No. 1 Kansas
By DAVE SKRETTAAP Sports Writer
Not once did they think that maybe, just maybe, they could be the first No. 16 seed to ever knock off a top-seeded team in the NCAA tournament.
"We knew what we had to do, we had to play basketball, regardless of what seed we were," the Hilltoppers' Jamal Crook said. "It wasn't really a focal point for us."
The Hilltoppers stuck to their stubborn focus throughout the second half, and nearly finished off the improbable win. If not for 17 points from Jeff Withey and a series of free throws from Ben McLemore and Naadir Tharpe, Kansas may not have escaped with a 64-57 victory Friday night.
"I thought they were the most aggressive team. I thought they controlled the game for the most part," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "We're happy to advance, but certainly not pleased with how we play, and know we'll have to play a lot better on Sunday."
The Jayhawks will face former coach Roy Williams and eighth-seeded North Carolina, which beat Villanova 78-71 earlier in the night, for a spot in the South Region's round of 16.
That dream matchup of college basketball blue bloods nearly didn't happen thanks to scrappy Western Kentucky (20-16), which used stifling full-court pressure to shake up the Jayhawks (30-5), take a 31-30 lead into the break and then keep within striking distance down the stretch.
Kansas didn't seal the game until McLemore's two foul shots with 11 seconds left.
"I think the entire country got a glimpse of what they're made of, a lot of character, a lot of heart," Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper said. "A lot of people doubted us this season. We went through a lot of adversity, and adversity will tell you a lot about people."
McLemore and Travis Releford scored 11 each for the Jayhawks, while Crook finished with 13 points and T.J. Price had 12 to lead the Hilltoppers.
Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 16 seeds are winless against No. 1 seeds in 116 games, including Southern's heartbreaking 64-58 loss to Gonzaga on Thursday.
Earlier on Friday, No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast stunned second-seeded Georgetown, perhaps emboldening the Sun Belt champions. And on the same floor at the Sprint Center, 13th-seeded La Salle knocked off Kansas State and No. 12 seed Ole Miss beat fifth-seeded Wisconsin.
Alas, the undersized Hilltoppers couldn't one-up them against Kansas, allowing the Big 12 champions to reach the 30-win mark for the fourth straight season - the first time that's happened in Division I men's basketball, after Memphis was forced to vacate the 2008 season.
"They kind of surprised us with how good they are, to be honest," Withey said. "We definitely took them lightly, being a No. 1 seed. They came out and fought really hard."
Indeed, the Jayhawks spent the first half on the ropes.
Price hit an opener 3-pointer in the opening minute, George Fant was able to use his superior quickness against the bigger Withey in the paint, and the Hilltoppers - who needed four wins to capture the Sun Belt tournament title and the league's automatic bid - slowly built a 20-16 lead.
The heavily pro-Kansas crowd fell quiet, even as Bill Self turned up the volume on the sideline, laying into his team for its lethargic start.
Kansas finally pulled ahead for the first time since midway through the first half when Elijah Johnson finished off a three-point play that made it 28-27 with 90 seconds left, but a pair of baskets by Price down the stretch gave the scrappy Hilltoppers a 31-30 lead at the break.
The Jayhawks seized the lead again early in the second half when Kevin Young followed up his own miss by grabbing the rebound and throwing down a reverse jam, and then Releford scored off a nifty feed from McLemore, forcing Harper to burn a timeout.
Fant and Aleksejs Rostov both picked up their fourth fouls midway through the half, taking seats next to Harper on the Western Kentucky bench. But the longtime Division II and NAIA coach couldn't keep his hottest hands there for long, and decided to gamble by putting them back in.
Harper rolled snake eyes when Fant fouled out with 5:37 remaining.
Withey made one of two free throws, McLemore drove untouched down the lane for an easy basket, and Withey scored on a nifty move in the post to push the Jayhawks to a 52-42 lead - their biggest of the game - and force Harper to call another timeout with 3:44 left on the clock.
Western Kentucky started whittling into the lead in the closing minutes, and a 3-pointer by Crook made it 59-55 with 25.4 seconds left. But the Jayhawks got the ball in the hands of Naadir Tharpe, and he made two free throws to provide them a cushion.
Price misfired from beyond the arc, and Brandon Harris was long on another 3-pointer from the corner, as McLemore added two more foul shots to seal the Jayhawks' victory.
"Thankfully, we got the win," Withey said, "and that's all that matters."