Friday March 21st, 2008

TAMPA, Fla. -- See that woman sitting in section 114? Her name is Ruth. She records the One Shining Moment montage every single year. She and her son watch it again and again. While they watch, they dream.

They dream because her son plays college basketball. That's him, Ty Rogers, No. 5, a senior guard for the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, and he's about to guarantee that Luther Vandross will serenade his shot. Right now, he's huddled with his teammates with 5.7 seconds remaining in overtime. Fifth-seeded Drake has just hit a pair of free throws to go up by one.

Wait a second. Ty is saying something to teammate Tyrone Brazelton, who has torched the Bulldogs for 33 points. "Don't be afraid to kick it to me," Rogers says.

Brazelton won't be afraid. He'll take Rogers' inbound pass and charge down the right side of the floor. Unseen by Drake defenders -- who can't take their eyes off Brazelton and Hilltoppers guard Courtney Lee -- Rogers will slip past everyone and plant himself on the wing, closer to the sideline than to the three-point line, directly in front of section 114. As Brazelton reaches the three-point line, he jukes left. Bulldogs Jonathan Cox and Adam Emmecker shadow him. Brazelton turns. There's Rogers.

In section 114, Ruth Rogers says a little prayer. So does Ty's father, Jeff. By the time the ball reaches Ty, Cox and Emmecker have sniffed out the ruse. They leap, their arms forming four fenceposts between Ty and the hoop. His shot just clears their fingertips. The clock strikes zero. The horn blasts.

The ball falls through. Western Kentucky wins, 101-99.

For a sliver of a second, silence. Then, "AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

Ty runs toward the Western Kentucky fans, banging his chest. Cox, the former walk-on who scored 29 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and made the three-pointer that forced overtime, crumples to the floor. The officials huddle around a replay screen. Yes, Rogers released the shot in time. Western Kentucky coach Darrin Horn sprints across the court and stands in front of section 114, the epicenter of a great red mass of Hilltopper spirit. He yells. "Believe, baby! You gotta believe!"

Believe in Brazelton, sure. He carried the Hilltoppers to a 16-point lead that evaporated in a hail of Drake three-pointers. But believe in Rogers? Absolutely.

It's only fitting, Ruth says as she waits for her son to emerge from his postgame duties, that a three-pointer will be the most important shot of Ty's life. "He learned to count by threes," Ruth says.

Counting those threes paid off, Jeff says. Ty, from tiny Eddyville, Ky., graduated from Lyon County High as the valedictorian. He was the first player Horn recruited from start to finish after taking over at his alma mater in 2003. In Ty, Horn saw himself, a guard whose shooting stroke, toughness and intangibles made up his lack of athleticism.

In an interview room in another part of the St. Pete Times Forum, Ty will take no credit for the shot. He will thank a higher power. He will thank his teammates.

"First of all, you've got to give the glory to God," Rogers says. "The reason I wanted the ball is because I have faith. And I think everybody on the team has faith. It's something we talk about. It didn't have to be me to shoot the ball. Whoever shot it, it was going down."

In a hallway, first-year Western Kentucky assistant Scott Cherry remembers the last time he helped a mid-major team win an NCAA yournament game. From 2003-07, Cherry was an assistant at a little school called George Mason. Maybe you've heard of it. Cherry explains that while the Patriots didn't beat any buzzers on the way to the 2006 Final Four, they did nearly gag away a lead against top-seeded UConn in the Elite Eight. "Our guys could have folded," Cherry says. "Just like today. We could have folded."

Hilltoppers coaches also could have panicked, Horn will say later. They had installed a play to use if they needed to go the length of the court and score. After Cox hit a free throw to give Drake a 99-98 lead, Bulldogs coach Keno Davis waited for Western Kentucky to set up its inbound play and called timeout. Drake used the timeout to devise a scheme to thwart that specific play.

"We weren't going to change it," Horn says.

Someone asks Rogers what is happening in Eddyville, a map dot about 30 miles Paducah, Ky. "I can't even imagine," Rogers says. "All seven people are out," Horn cracks. Later, Rogers will stick up for his hometown. "We have three stoplights now," he says. "So we're growing."

No matter how big it gets, Eddyville will have one native who may never have to pay for a beer again. "He just set himself for life in the state of Kentucky," Horn says. "And he's already smarter than anybody in our program -- including the head coach."

Friday afternoon, Rogers doesn't think about the back slaps or the attaboys that will provide the chorus for the remainder of his life. Instead, he thinks of another song, one written on the back of napkin by composer David Barrett in 1986 at the Varsity Inn in East Lansing, Mich. Before Friday, Rogers' favorite One Shining Moment highlights were Valparaiso guard Bryce Drew's miracle to beat Ole Miss in 1998 and former AAU teammate Chris Lofton's baseline prayer to lift Tennessee against Winthrop in 2006.

Out in section 114, Ruth Rogers can't recall a favorite shining moment. She doesn't need to. She has a new one. "She loves it just as much as I do," Ty says. "I cannot wait 'til she tapes this year's."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.