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Posted: Friday March 20, 2009 2:34AM; Updated: Friday March 20, 2009 10:03AM
Kelli Anderson Kelli Anderson >
AT THE TOURNEY

A Closer Look: WKU-Illinois

Story Highlights

The Hilltoppers were stellar from long range, nailing 9-of-19 three-pointers

Illinois made a furious comeback in the waning seconds but never tied the game

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Western Kentucky forward, and Memphis native, Sergio Kerusch had a double-double (14 points, 11 boards) against the Illini.
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PORTLAND, Ore. -- It seems everyone saw this one coming except, perhaps, President Obama, who picked Illinois to beat Western Kentucky when he filled out his bracket a few days ago. ("It's his home state, so I can't blame him," says Western Kentucky junior guard A.J. Slaughter.) It's hard to know if the outcome would have been different had Chester Frazier, the Illini's senior point guard and best perimeter defender, not been sidelined with a broken hand.

But it's hard to imagine his presence would have made for a much more exciting finish. With six minutes to go, the Hilltoppers were up 68-51. Over the next five-plus minutes, the Illini whittled the margin to three and then, within 9 seconds, to two before junior guard Anthony Sally hit two free throws to seal the game. "I started to panic, I'm not going to lie," said Hilltopper senior Orlando Mendez-Valdez. "But we regained our composure and finished the game off. Not the way we wanted to, but a win is a win."

Three things we learned

1. Western Kentucky is as good at defending the three as it is at shooting it. Against Illinois, four Hilltoppers made at least two threes, collectively hitting 9-of-19 (47.4 percent). Trent Meacham was the only Illini player who hit more than one: He got four of the team's five (out of 18 -- for 27.8 percent).

2. Memphis recruiters have some explaining to do. How did the Tigers miss out on Sergio Kerusch, the Toppers' 6-foot-5 sophomore swingman who grew up in Memphis? Against the Illini, he had 14 points and 11 rebounds and made 2-of-4 three-pointers. For that matter, how did Louisville and Kentucky miss out Western's two Kentucky natives -- 6-5 sophomore Steffphon Pettigrew, a former Mr. Kentucky Basketball who had 17 points, four rebounds and was 2-for-2 from the arc and Slaughter, a 6-3 junior guard from Shelbyville, Ky., who had 14 points and was 2-for-7 from the arc?

3. The Hilltoppers don't like the 'M' word. "We have a great tradition at Western Kentucky," said assistant Lawrence Brenneman. "We're a lot like Gonzaga from the standpoint that we win league championships, every year. At Gonzaga, they win league championship every year. So does Memphis. It's hard to categorize us as a mid-major, when we've had the success we've had."

Player who impressed me

Orlando Mendez-Valdez. A role player in his first three years at Western Kentucky, OMV has flourished under first-year coach Ken McDonald as a do-everything floor leader. Against Troy earlier this season, he recorded the first triple-double in school history (18 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists.) On Thursday, he flirted with another triple-double, getting 11 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists and two steals.

Courtside confidential

Before the game, the Hilltoppers got encouraging text messages from players on last year's Sweet 16 team, including Orlando Magic guard Courtney Lee. OMV also heard from people he hadn't seen since childhood. "I had 34 messages before the game," he said. "I haven't checked yet, but I'm sure now it's double that."

Going forward

For the Hilltoppers to make it to their second-consecutive Sweet 16, they have to get by another non-mid-major mid-major, Gonzaga, a team Brenneman said has "all the ingredients of a national champion." Keeping the 'Zags off the glass, stopping them in transition and handling their press will be a good start.

 
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