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Staying loose


The day before they're scheduled to meet top-ranked UCLA in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tourney, the Western Kentucky players stood huddled around a free-standing white board in their locker room at the U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix.

Their full concentration was on sophomores A.J. Slaughter and A'Darius Pegues as they put on a show, drawing caricatures of each other with dry-erase markers and cracking up their teammates. For a No. 12 seed that's facing mounting pressure with its newfound Cinderella status, a little relaxation could go a long way in Thursday night's game.

"We don't want to come out to any game playing tight," senior guard Courtney Lee said. "If you go out and play loose, that's when the fun comes in."

Thursday's matchup pits Western Kentucky -- a team that's made the improbable run to the Sweet 16 with a buzzer-beater three to defeat No. 5 Drake and a hard fought win over No. 13 San Diego -- against UCLA, a team that hasn't been ranked lower than eighth in the AP poll all season.

Not surprisingly, the Hilltoppers' success has generated a lot of excitement back home in Bowling Green, Ky. The team was greeted last Sunday with an enthusiastic welcome home celebration at the airport, where television cameras and hundreds of fans, including cheerleaders and band members, gathered. Only one Western Kentucky team has won three tournament games (back in 1971) and the last time the Hilltoppers made the Sweet 16 was in 1993, with the squad that included Hilltoppers coach Darrin Horn.

"It's great to see people on campus as excited as they are," senior point guard Tyrone Brazelton said. "One of my teachers was asking me more questions about the tournament than about my [late] homework."

The Hilltoppers are enjoying the recognition, but they're also focused on the Bruins backcourt and Pac-10 player of the year Kevin Love.

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"UCLA likes to grind it out, slow it down and beat you up on defense," Brazelton said. "I feel like if we can get up and down and get a few easy buckets, we can keep the game in our favor."

Western Kentucky will try to rely on its speed and its press to stay in the game. "One thing we realized is that UCLA doesn't have a lot of depth," said assistant coach Cypheus Bunton, who played alongside Horn in 1993. "They go about six or seven guys deep. All year long our game plan has been to just run and use as many guys as we can to try to wear teams down."

One of those guys is Lee, the Sun Belt conference player of the year whose combination of made-for-You -Tube dunks and outside shooting has caught the eye of NBA scouts. (Suns GM Steve Kerr watched him practice Wednesday afternoon.) "I definitely was trying to put in an application while I was out there," Lee said.

One scout, who saw Lee play against South Alabama in February, said, "He has an NBA body and great athleticism. His shot's going to have to get much more consistent, but I have to say, some of his inconsistency is attributed to his being a good team player. He's willing to give it up to his teammates."

It has been up to Lee and the rest of the seniors to keep the momentum going after the team beat Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt tournament title game. There's Brazelton, whose father, a former point guard, said he and his son have "the Michael Jordan Syndrome -- at any cost, we want to beat you".

There's also guard Ty Rogers, whose buzzer-beater against Drake ensured him "One Shining Moment" immortality. Forward Boris Siakam quietly averages 18 minutes per game, and guard Adam Howard, a walk-on, is often the first one off the bench to give a teammate a hug or a slap on the back after a big play.

Senior leadership has made a difference in the way the team played in big games this season. After losing by three points to Gonzaga (ranked No. 14 at the time) and by six to Tennessee (then ranked No. 11) earlier this season, the Hilltoppers survived 16-points comebacks against both Drake and San Diego in the tourney.

"The coaches weren't talking," Howard said, describing the timeouts during San Diego's second-half run. "We had five seniors who were fighting for the floor to say something because we all wanted it so bad."

And what of the notion that no matter how much the Toppers want to win, it's definitely a longshot for them to beat the Bruins? "Just because they're UCLA, it's just a name on a jersey," Slaughter said. "We're going to go out and play with no fear."