Dayton, Ohio (AP)
The only team with a losing record in the NCAA tournament got it started with a classic March comeback.
In front of a presidential audience, no less.
T.J. Price’s three-point play with 33 seconds left completed a furious rally from a 16-point deficit, and Western Kentucky held on for a 59-58 victory over Mississippi Valley State on Tuesday night.
President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron had front-row seats to see the tournament open with a ragged game that had an engrossing finish.
The Hilltoppers (16-18) are the longest of long shots, the only squad in the 68-team field with a losing record. They turned up the full-court pressure in the last 5 minutes, overcoming a 16-point deficit with a comeback that won over the crowd at University of Dayton Arena.
After the buzzer sounded, Obama and Cameron headed out, fans still buzzing over what had just happened. Somehow, the Hilltoppers won despite shooting 30 percent from the field and turning it over 28 times.
Western Kentucky moves on to play Kentucky — the top seed in the South Regional — on Thursday in Louisville, an all-Bluegrass game for the second round.
MVSU (21-13) caught the president’s eye while pulling ahead, but couldn’t close it out. Kevin Burwell scored 20 points and locked eyes with the president after swishing a 3-pointer while the Delta Devils built their big lead. Obama smiled back.
Obama — a huge basketball fan who fills out an NCAA bracket each year — spent a lot of time explaining the nuances of the game to Cameron. Obama has picked Kentucky as one of his Final Four teams.
A smaller school from a corner of the commonwealth became the star of the First Four.
The Hilltoppers were the losers’ favorite in the bracket — the first team since Coppin State in 2009 to make it to the tournament with a losing record.
And that didn’t even begin to tell their story.
A team featuring seven freshmen lost 11 of its first 16 games. The low point came on Jan. 5, when Louisiana-Lafayette somehow managed to get six players on the floor for the winning shot in overtime. And that wasn’t the worst indignity that day. Only 2,137 fans took advantage of a $1 ticket promotion, showing that very few considered the Hilltoppers worth a buck.
The next day, coach Ken McDonald was fired, replaced by assistant Ray Harper. The Hilltoppers responded by losing their next three games.
Slowly, they grew form a young, bad team into one that found its stride at tournament time. They won four games in four days for the Sun Belt Conference title and its automatic berth.
And here they were on Tuesday, opening the NCAA tournament before a presidential audience that seemed to add to both teams’ jitters at the outset.
There was no avoiding the enormity. During the first timeout, photographers from the White House press corps went on the court to snap photos. The two referees on that side of the court shook the president’s hand.
At one point, Obama explained a goaltending call to the prime minister — the only really good play in the sloppy opening minutes. Western Kentucky missed 11 of its first 13 shots and had five turnovers, helping the Delta Devils pull ahead 11-5.
At that point, it might have reminded the president of some of those pick-up games he plays for fun in Washington.
Burwell took the game into his hands at the start of the second half. He made sure he got the president’s attention after hitting a 3 in front of him, turning to make an eye connection.
He had a chance to tie the game in the closing seconds, shooting another 3 in front of Obama. It missed and Cor-J Cox had a putback at the buzzer that left the Delta Devils a point short.