DAYTON, OHIO - It was fitting that the NCAA Tournament kicked off with such a mad finish.
With President Barack Obama in attendance, Western Kentucky rallied from 16 points down in the final five minutes to shock Mississippi Valley State, 59-58, as part of the First Four.
Western Kentucky (16-18) trailed 53-37 with 4:52 on the clock before a wild stretch that included an effective press that continually caused turnovers and fastbreak opportunities on the other end.
"The final horn hadn't gone off. We were going to believe until the bitter end," said Western Kentucky head coach Ray Harper.
Derrick Gordon scored all 11 of his points in the second half and T.J. Price also had 11, including the go-ahead three-point play with 33.8 seconds to go.
For their efforts, the 16th-seeded Hilltoppers earned a date with top-seeded Kentucky on Friday in Louisville. They will have to clean up their play, cut down on their 28 turnovers and make more than 2-of-17 three-point attempts to hang with the mighty Wildcats.
Mississippi Valley State (21-13) seemed well on its way to a first-ever NCAA Tournament victory until it all came unraveled down the stretch. Kevin Burwell led all scorers with 20 points, while William Pugh donated 11 and Cor-J Cox posted 10 points and seven rebounds for the Delta Devils.
"We've had a historical run. And it's unfortunate that it ended this way," said Delta Devils head coach Sean Woods. "We fought our hearts out for 35 1/2 minutes, and we just let it slip away."
In the second half, the SWAC champs started raining threes with two from Burwell, opening a 29-21 lead. Another by Pugh thwarted a Western Kentucky run for a 34-28 game and his layup moments later gave the Delta Devils their first double-digit advantage, 43-33. The margin grew to 53-37 on Cox's layup, and it appeared the rout was on with just over five minutes to go.
Yet, Western Kentucky fought back, rattling off the next 16 points with a trap defense that bothered the Delta Devils. Price's three-point play made the score 53-46 then back-to-back takeaways cut the deficit even further. O'Karo Akamune finished off a transition chance with a slam, and George Fant made two free throws off another break that came thanks to a Delta Devils miscue.
Gordon's layup got the Hilltoppers within one, but he missed four straight free throws in the next 30 seconds that could have given them the lead. Western Kentucky finally reached the top of the mountain, tying the game at 54-54 on Jamal Crook's putback with 1:12 to play.
Price's layup and subsequent free throw with 33.8 seconds remaining gave Western Kentucky its first lead since a 4-2 edge in the early going. Burwell had a chance to force overtime with an open three from the right corner in the closing seconds, but it found nothing but air.
Early jitters were on full display, as neither team could find the bottom of the net on a consistent basis. The Hilltoppers had just five points over nine minutes in, as Mississippi Valley State claimed an 11-5 edge on Pugh's thunderous slam.
Western Kentucky regained its footing and squared the contest at 13-13 on Teeng Akol's layup, but the Sun Belt champs went into another scoring lull heading into halftime. The Delta Devils edged in front and held a 23-19 lead after 20 minutes of game action.
Western Kentucky became the first team to win an NCAA Tournament game with as many as 28 turnovers since 1993 ... Mississippi Valley State made 36 percent of its shots and committed 17 turnovers of its own ... The two teams combined to make just 29-of-54 free throws.