Western Kentucky provides 1st big upset of NCAAs

PORTLAND — An upset? Western Kentucky looked and acted like it was business as usual.

Yes, these Hilltoppers are no one-year wonders.

The party crashers of last year's NCAA tournament did it again late Thursday night. Scoffing at another No. 12 seeding, Western Kentucky booted fifth-seeded Illinois 76-72 behind 17 points from Steffphon Pettigrew and the workmanlike confidence of a major power.

The Hilltoppers advanced to Saturday night's second round against Gonzaga (27-5), which has won 19 of 20 games.

As the final buzzer sounded, the Hilltoppers looked like a practice had just ended. No leaping. No screaming. Just business.

"We know. We've been here," center Jeremy Evans said flatly inside a locker room that sounded more like it was before the game, instead of after the first huge "upset" of the tournament.

"People are looking at it as an upset. We're not looking at it that way," said junior A.J. Slaughter, who overcame 5-of-16 shooting to score 14 points.

The Hilltoppers (25-8) built a 17-point lead in the second half and then held on against the stunned then desperate Illini (24-10).

"Everybody predicted us to lose tonight, and we just couldn't prove them wrong," said Illinois' senior Trent Meacham, who had a game-high 24 points in his final collegiate game.

In other games in Portland, Washington beat Mississippi State 71-58 and Purdue got past Northern Iowa 61-56 in West Region games. Gonzaga defeated Akron 77-64 in the South Regional.

Slaughter was the third-leading scorer on last year's Hilltoppers, who as the 12th seed in 2008 defeated Drake 101-99 in overtime, then beat San Diego 72-63 before falling to UCLA in the regional semifinals.

With the key players on that team gone and a new head coach, Western Kentucky was considered a longshot to even return to the tournament. But the Hilltoppers rolled through the Sun Belt Conference to win their 41st league title (including regular season and tournament), trailing only Kentucky and Kansas in Division I.

So no, they weren't surprised.

"We came into this tournament and we're just not happy to be here. We want to be dancing for as long as we can," coach Ken McDonald said.

"I was hoping we weren't picked as much as we were picked, because we play better when people are against us."

That shouldn't be a problem on Saturday. The loaded Zags have lost only to Memphis, a No. 2 seed in the tournament, in this calendar year.

Since 2001, No. 12 seeds have gone a healthy 14-20 against No. 5s.

Washington 71, Mississippi State 58, West Region

Quincy Pondexter scored a season-high 23 points — two short of his career high — to lead a decisive first-half spurt in the fourth-seeded Huskies' win over the 13th-seeded Bulldogs.

Washington (26-8) took advantage of early foul trouble to Mississippi State's menacing Jarvis Varnado to advance to play Purdue on Saturday in the second round of the Huskies' first NCAA tournament in three years.

Jon Brockman did what Varnado couldn't — overcome fouls — to finish with 14 rebounds and 10 points while playing with what he believes is a broken nose.

Barry Stewart and Phil Turner had 11 points each for Mississippi State (23-13), which had reached the NCAAs for the sixth time in eight years only because of its surprising romp through the SEC tournament.

Gonzaga 77, Akron 64, South Region

Josh Heytvelt scored 22 points and the fourth-seeded Zags woke up from a six-point deficit in the second half to go on a decisive 18-1 run late to survive the bruising Zips.

The Zags (27-5) are in their 11th consecutive NCAA tournament but had lost in the first round of the last two.

Purdue 61, Northern Iowa 56, West Region

E'Twaun Moore had his right shoulder encased in ice and wrapped in plastic after his game-high 17 points, and Robbie Hummel, who had both knees wrapped with ice, had nine points and a game-high 12 rebounds.

The Boilermakers were able to outlast the 12th-seeded Panthers (23-11) in a plodding game, setting up Purdue's first meeting with Washington since 1967.

JaJuan Johnson had 14 points for Purdue, which led by 14 before Northern Iowa closed to within 56-54 with 17.4 seconds remaining on Kerwin Dunham's 3-pointer before the Boilermakers clinched their 11th consecutive first-round victory in the NCAA tournament.

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