When I first heard that President Obama and Great Britain Prime Minister David Cameron were going to attend our beloved Quad-PIG, I immediately noted the following on twitter "Get down there REALLY EARLY then." While a Presidential visit certainly legitimizes one of "The Most Honest Games in College Basketball," it certainly brings its share of headaches.
Work duties in the Cincinnati suburbs until 5 p.m. already meant that I would miss pregame activities at South Park Tavern. The first moment of inconvenience I noticed was arriving at the Edwin Moses Boulevard exit on I-75. Dayton police had blocked the exit, which is the primary access point to UD Arena, to make sure the Presidential motorcade wouldn't get stuck in traffic. So I had to go up to the next exit, U.S. 35, and detour through downtown Dayton.
Upon getting to the parking lot, I was told that the only spots remaining were for parking pass holders. All the spots available for paid parking were already taken. Not all by people attending the game, there were several hundred people who had gathered just hoping to get a glimpse of the President. So I retreated to the auxiliary area, and waited for a shuttle. After about five minutes a shuttle arrived, and the driver immediately apologized and said that UD wasn't expecting this type of crowd and only had two buses running instead of the usual four.
Finally at the arena, there was the last line of inconvenience, metal detectors. Enhanced security is not unusual at an NCAA tournament game, bag checks, open coats and wand metal detectors are relatively normal, but this was almost airport security. Thankfully, the full-scale metal detectors didn't require belt and shoe removal, or the process would have taken much longer. I passed through the gate and had made it with three minutes to spare.
Why did Obama and Cameron come anyway? If the President wanted to watch an NCAA tournament game, following his law school alma mater, Harvard, would seem a more natural fit. Cameron certainly wouldn't have cared, he admitted it was the first time he had watched basketball. Well, it was an opportunity to make an appearance in a state critical to his chances of re-election. Ohio is a swing state, and Dayton truly is a swing city. Most of the Northern half of the state runs Democratic blue, while most of the Southern half runs Republican red. So Dayton and Columbus often push elections one way or the other.
Possibly because of the audience, or just because these were two average teams playing on a big stage, the first half was chaotic and sloppy. Mississippi Valley pressed Western Kentucky into several turnovers. A transition opportunity led to a William Pugh thunderdunk gave the Delta Devils an 11-5 lead with 11:38 to go in the first half. Other than that, the first half was pretty blasé, with neither team shooting particularly well. MVSU lead WKU 23-19 at the break.
On the other hand, the battle of the mascots was quite entertaining. On one side, you had the Delta Devil bringing some Dirty South moves to the court while the band blasted everyone with a brass bonanza. On the other, you had Western Kentucky's infamous mascot Big Red, who went with a more comic approach. Trying to steal food from fans in the front row, mimicking a security guard watching the crowd, or trying to eat a cheerleader's megaphone (large end first) provided worthy distractions during the lengthy time-outs. You can always tell who hasn't been to the tournament in a while by how the cheerleaders and bands fill the time. The inexperienced will always perform their normal 60-90 second routine, and then realize that they still have to fill another 45 seconds.
The halftime break, already five minutes longer than standard so television can cram in more commercials and talking head insight, was even longer than planned. Obama and Cameron, along with their 20 person entourage, retreated under the stands during halftime. They reemerged with a few minutes left for a television interview. After the interview, the pair took a few moments to pose for photos and sign autographs. However, they were still on the court when it was time to start the second half, and the men in stripes had to wait until Obama and Cameron were properly seated before play could resume.
Up six, a dunk by Cor-J Cox gave Mississippi Valley a boost that would seem to doom the Hilltoppers. Over the next four minutes, the Delta Devils went on a 9-0 to extend their lead to 47-32 with just 7:46 remaining. The large contingent of Western Kentucky fans that made the four and a half hour drive was silent and clutching their red rally towels, which is the logo of the athletics program. The lead should have been even larger, except for several missed free throws by MVSU's Brent Arrington. In a one minute span, Arrington missed five of the six free throw opportunities he had at the stripe. Perhaps it was the Western Kentucky band getting in his head with their chant "Hey you at the free throw line, you scared, you scared!"
Admittedly at this point, watching President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron watch the game became more interesting than watching the game itself. Obama had a good time explaining the various nuances of the game to Cameron. Cameron seemed to particularly enjoy an acrobatic save from a Mississippi Valley player who whipped the ball between his legs while flying out of bounds. It was also good to see a large military presence at the game. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is a large part of Dayton, and it was nice to see a large number of troops who were likely treated to a free or cheap ticket to the night's action.
Down 15, the Hilltoppers had to change their approach. There's an axiom that teams who love to pressure hate to be pressured. It doesn't seem to make much sense; you figure that if you see pressure in practice every day, it's less likely to faze you. But it worked. It was the Delta Devils who started turning the ball over and missing shot after shot. Without made shots, it was hard to set up their pressure. By the four minute media time-out, the lead was down to ten.
The Hilltopper crowd was into it now, and the WKU run continued. T.J. Price scored a ye olde superhoop, O'Karo Akamune stole a pass and took it to the hoop for a dunk. George Fant hit a couple of free throws. Price got a rebound and fed the ball to Jamal Crook on the outlet, who found Derrick Gordon for a layup. It was suddenly 53-52; the Delta Devil lead was down to one with two minutes left.
By that point, Mississippi Valley just couldn't restart the engine on its offense. Cox would hit one free throw to extend the lead to two, but Crook would corral an offensive board and the putback tied the game at 54. Terrance Joiner had a layup blocked for MVSU, and the Hilltoppers had their chance to take the lead with one minute to play.
And take the lead Western Kentucky would, although it would take three tries. Gordon forced up a three attempt way to early in the possession, but Crook would get the rebound. Akamune tried a layup, but it was thwarted by a Cox block out of bounds. After a timeout, Crook found Price, who once again got the hoop and the harm. The converted free throw made it 57-54 Hilltoppers. Mississippi Valley finally got a couple of layups to fall, but Western Kentucky hit enough free throws to hold onto the lead. Despite a ghastly 27 turnovers and 30.6 percent shooting from the floor (and an offensive "efficiency" of 0.7 points per possession), the Hilltoppers were the ones that would survive and advance.
The reward for Western Kentucky would be a chance to battle in-state big brother Kentucky. You would think that the two schools would have quite a history against each other, but the matchup would only be the sixth between the two schools. We know that 16 seeds are 0-112 against 1 seeds, so the message is understood that the Hilltoppers' stay in the tournament would not last much longer. But executing one of the biggest comebacks in NCAA tournament history should have left Western Kentucky feeling good for one more evening.
WESTERN KENTUCKY 59, MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE 58 03/13/2012
WESTERN KENTUCKY 16-18 (7-9) -- D. Gordon 4-14 3-7 11; J. Crook 3-10 3-6 9; T. Price 3-11 5-5 11; T. Akol 3-9 3-4 9; G. Fant 2-4 5-8 9; K. McDonald 0-7 0-0 0; V. Zollo 2-4 0-0 6; O. Akamune 1-3 0-2 2; K. Anyigbo 0-0 0-0 0; N. Snipes 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 19-63 19-32 59. MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE 21-13 (17-1) -- K. Burwell 7-12 3-4 20; P. Crosby 3-9 1-3 7; T. Joyner 1-10 1-2 3; C. Cox 4-11 2-3 10; A. Studivant 0-7 0-0 0; B. Arrington 3-6 1-8 7; W. Pugh 4-6 2-2 11; L. Pajkovic 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-61 10-22 58.
Three-point goals: WKU 2-17 (T. Akol 0-1; K. McDonald 0-3; D. Gordon 0-5; T. Price 0-5; V. Zollo 2-3), MVSU 4-22 (K. Burwell 3-6; C. Cox 0-3; P. Crosby 0-3; W. Pugh 1-2; T. Joyner 0-5; B. Arrington 0-3); Rebounds: WKU 53 (G. Fant 11), MVSU 30 (A. Studivant 8); Assists: WKU 10 (J. Crook 3), MVSU 12 (T. Joyner 4); Total Fouls -- WKU 18, MVSU 24; Fouled Out: WKU-None; MVSU-B. Arrington.