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Western Kentucky beats San Diego in NCAA Tournament

TAMPA — Whatever Western Kentucky and San Diego lacked in name recognition, they more than made up for with sheer entertainment.

Their respective upsets Friday of considerable favorites Drake and Connecticut to open the NCAA Tournament were nothing short of remarkable.

So, perhaps it should come as little surprise that Sunday's matchup of the unlikely second-round opponents at the St. Pete Times Forum was a thriller in its own right.

In the end, Western Kentucky notched a hard-fought 72-63 victory, surviving the tournament's frantic first weekend in Tampa by holding off a feisty San Diego team attempting to pen its own storybook ending.

A "great college basketball game, like we knew it would be," was how Hilltoppers coach Darrin Horn described it, his hoarse voice barely discernible as a result of the frenetic finish.

San Diego's stirring 18-2 run during a nine-minute, 11-second stretch late in the second half turned a game that was bordering on a blowout into a barnburner — the way it should be when a trip to the Sweet 16 is at stake.

The Toreros took a one-point lead with 6:35 left after their all-out effort to close a 15-point deficit, but with its short seven-man rotation leaving it spent against the deep Hilltoppers, San Diego didn't have enough left to regain the lead when Western Kentucky star Courtney Lee took it back on the next possession.

Now, behind Lee's 29-point performance, Western Kentucky (29-6) is back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1993, when Horn was a sophomore at the school.

His players have heard stories about the experience ad nauseum, their coach using his experiences as motivation. They will be able to taste it for themselves when they take on West Region No.  1 seed UCLA in Phoenix.

"I don't have to listen to him talk about it anymore in the locker room, so that's great," joked Lee, whose 12th-seeded team joins Villanova as the lowest-seeded teams to advance.

For Horn, the once unrivaled feeling of having played in the Sweet 16 might no longer be unmatched after he coaches in it.

"When you played at a place you coach at, you feel like you've really put into the tradition and helped add to it," he said. "So, there's a greater sense of pride."

But the Hilltoppers didn't get here on tradition. They played an unforgiving brand of defense Sunday, using their full-court pressure to force 17 turnovers — many at critical times. And they played their typical uptempo game that the Toreros struggled to match. The Hilltoppers picked up the pace after San Diego's run and closed with an 18-8 burst while exhausted San Diego (22-14) lost its legs.

The task before San Diego was daunting. The Toreros flew 3,000 miles to get here, played an overtime contest Friday against No. 4 UConn to advance, then had to keep pace in a basketball game that Western Kentucky did its best to turn into a track meet.

San Diego has a flair for the dramatic, but it ran out of magic this time.

"I can't fault our (team) for the way they competed and battled back," coach Bill Grier said. "It looked bleak out there. That's been the one thing about this group pretty much all season. We've dug some holes and fought back. … We just didn't have enough left in the tank to finish it down the stretch."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

No. 12 W. Ky. 72

No. 13 SD 63

Western Kentucky beats San Diego in NCAA Tournament 03/23/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 23, 2008 11:28pm]

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