Western Kentucky Surprises At NCAA Tournament

They're called the Hilltoppers. They're from Western Kentucky University. And they're the only men's basketball team with a losing record in the NCAA tournament. But they're still playing and enjoying their new notoriety. Are they this year's "Cinderella?"

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Basketball fans in Bowling Green, Kentucky are celebrating an amazing come-from-behind victory. It happened last night in the opening game of the NCAA tournament. President Obama and the British prime minister had front row seats, as the Hilltoppers came back from 16 points down to beat Mississippi Valley State.

From member station WKYU, Joe Corcoran has reaction from Bowling Green.

JOE CORCORAN, BYLINE: Even veteran announcer Jim Nantz couldn't contain of his excitement at the end of the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

JIM NANTZ: Western Kentucky pulls off one of the great comebacks you'll ever see in NCAA tournament history.

CORCORAN: Last night's win was just the latest in an improbable season for the WKU Hilltoppers. After starting 5-and-11, head coach Ken McDonald was fired. Assistant Ray Harper took over. Since then, Western has reeled off seven straight wins, including four in four nights, to win their conference tournament and get an invitation to the big dance.

The winning streak has the 20,000 students here energized. This morning, freshman Katie Jangers(ph) was checking out highlights of last night's game on her laptop.

KATIE JANGERS: Yeah. Definitely, especially since the new coach, I've, you know, kept track of all the games and everything. I think once we were losing - and we were playing awful, too - everyone was really disappointed and stuff. But, I mean, then we pulled it out. It was awesome.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORCORAN: Over at the campus bookstore, people are pouring in with smiles on their faces and cash in their hands.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It looks so much bigger than medium. But they're not going to shrink, right?

CORCORAN: Less than 12 hours after the game ended 1,400 bright red T-shirts were already on bookstore shelves. They're promoting WKU's matchup tomorrow night against top-seed Kentucky.

Associate Director Jim Sears said a little advance planning helped. He nearly had to go over and above to fill the demand from their printer in central Alabama.

JIM SEARS: Last night, as soon as the game was over, we had already had a shirt designed for the UK game. I called Russell and I said make them shirts. Got in the van at 8:30, drove all night and got there, picked up the shirts and had the shirts in the store before the store opened this morning at 7:30. I got here about 10 till 7.

CORCORAN: The extra work was worth it. Today, they've had hundreds of mail-order requests and people have been calling all day to buy T-shirts. Even though the game has a business angle to him, Sears says he's a nervous fan just like everybody else.

SEARS: I was watching the game and I was, you know, we're down by 16 points. I was ready to get in my jammies. And I was sitting there and I said oh, man. I was texting some of my friends and they said - and I said, oh my, goodness - we're coming back. And I said - so I put on my shoes and put on some comfortable pants 'cause I knew I'd be on the road for 10 hours.

CORCORAN: The Hilltoppers are still on the road themselves. They traveled from last night's game in Ohio to Louisville for their matchup tomorrow night against Kentucky. WKU is hoping this Cinderella season lasts just a little bit longer. But as the only team in the tournament with a losing record, even diehard fans are worried that's a long shot.

For NPR News, I'm Joe Corcoran in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: