Monday March 24th, 2008

TAMPA, Fla. -- The pregame routine had gone so smoothly Sunday for No. 12 seed Western Kentucky. Sophomore forward Jeremy Evans, the unofficial team barber, had touched up guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez's fauxhawk, adding a stripe on each side of the junior's head to commemorate the Hilltoppers' stunner against fifth-seeded Drake on Friday. Coach Darrin Horn had gotten his pregame peck from seven-year-old daughter Caroline. Now, the only task that remained before getting down to the business of playing into the Sweet 16 was the traditional knuckle bump between Horn and four-year-old son Walker.

But where was Walker? Tipoff against 13th-seeded San Diego was only minutes away. Horn, already sporting a gash across the bridge of his nose from an unfortunate meeting with a low door frame, began to panic.

"Then I noticed an usher, and it looked like maybe he didn't want to let [Walker] down," Horn said. "I was going to end up with another mark on my face if he didn't let my son down to give me my good-luck knuckles."

The usher relented, avoiding a with-extreme-prejudice knuckle collision in favor of a more playful one. His knuckles wrapped, Horn retreated to the bench. There, he helped his Hilltoppers to a 72-63 win that made these Hilltoppers the first Western Kentucky team since 1993 -- when Horn was a sophomore guard -- to reach the Sweet 16.

This time, the Hilltoppers didn't need a miracle shot. Ty Rogers, the senior guard who swished a prayer on Good Friday to beat Drake in overtime, scored just five points. Instead, Western Kentucky leaned on star guards Courtney Lee (game-high 29 points) and Tyrone Brazelton (15 points). Evans, whose 7-foot-4 wingspan could allow him to stand in his kitchen and cut the hair of someone sitting in the living room, blocked five shots and added nine points.

The Hilltoppers built a double-digit lead shortly before halftime, and it seemed they might blow the Toreros out of the gym before they hit a cold spell midway through the second. Western Kentucky missed five consecutive shots and committed three turnovers as its side of the scoreboard remained stuck on 54. Clinging to a two-point lead after a Boris Siakam turnover, Horn called timeout to calm his team. When play resumed, San Diego guard Devin Ginty hit a three-pointer to give the Toreros a 55-54 lead.

The next shot came from a player who, in the summer of 2004, never thought he'd still be wearing a Western Kentucky uniform. Three days after his arrival in Bowling Green, Ky., Lee decided he wanted to go home to Indiana. He would transfer to Butler or to Purdue. He repeatedly called his mother to tell her he was coming home.

"I called her for two days in a row," Lee said. "Then she started hanging up on me." Horn also had no intention of losing Lee. "Did I talk to him? I locked him in his room," Horn said. "We weren't going to let him go home."

Teammate Danny Rumph helped keep Lee by driving him home "to show me I wasn't missing anything," Lee said. Rumph died the following May of a heart attack caused by an enlarged heart, and Lee dedicated his career to his fallen teammate. That career will last at least one more game after Lee followed Ginty's shot 18 seconds later with a three-pointer of his own. The Hilltoppers never trailed again.

But even as Western Kentucky pulled away, school president Gary Ransdell couldn't relax. Ransdell, who requires an aisle seat because of his tendency to pace during games, is a Western Kentucky alum, Class of '73. When he was a sophomore, the Hilltoppers reached the Final Four. Ransdell made the pilgrimage to the Houston Astrodome, where the Hilltoppers lost to Villanova in the national semifinal and beat Kansas in the consolation game. "I can almost remember every play of both games," Ransdell said.

The Hilltoppers were missing one fan Sunday. Ed Stansbury, the 101-year-old former WKU player, coach and athletic director -- and the man who created the signature towel Hilltoppers fans wave -- watched Friday's win in person, but he didn't make the short trip from his home in Largo, Fla., for Sunday's game. "Friday took a lot out of him," Ransdell said. "We wouldn't want to lose him at a basketball game."

A few rows down from Ransdell, Brazelton's father, Tyrone Sr., looked ahead to the Hilltoppers' next opponent. "UCLA, here we come!" the elder Brazelton shouted. There will be plenty of time to watch video of the Bruins between now and Thursday, but Horn seemed more concerned Sunday night about diagnosing and fixing the problem that nearly crippled Western Kentucky on Sunday: the good-luck knuckles issue.

"We had a lot of family here, and [Walker] wasn't with mom, which is the protocol. It's just like making game adjustments," Horn said. "We'll get that corrected."

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