Western Kentucky Upsets Illinois: Let's Hear It For The Hilltoppers

Ryan DearboneCorrespondent IMarch 20, 2009

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 19:  Sergio Kerusch #1 of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers raises his arms on the bench late in the second half against the Illinois Fighting Illini during the first round of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at the Rose Garden on March 19, 2009 in Portland, Oregon. The Hilltoppers defeated the Illini 76-72.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

"Let's hear it for the boys..."

All right, children of the 80s, I'm stealing the best line from this Deniece Williams classic because it aptly describes the WKU-Illinois first round NCAA tournament game.

Before I continue, I must confess to you that I'm a WKU homer/alumnus...and to all that are confused, it should read "WKU" and not "WKY" on the CBS lower-third graphic. With that being said, please indulge me for a second.

It wasn't the "One Shining Moment" clip Western provided us last year, ripe with the thrill of Ty Roger's last second heroics, but it was still the best theater you could find on the tournament's first day. 'Twas a true movie script that was well-written and acted out even better.

From the opening tip, the Toppers were in control. The Tops laced up their running shoes and took it to a stunned Illini team. Led by Stephon Pettigrew, the former Mr. Kentucky in basketball, the Tops erased all doubts that they belonged at the dance and showed that last year's Sweet Sixteen birth was definitely not a fluke.

But as with all good stories, the good times stopped rollin' and reality hit the Tops hard. Illinois super-powered to within two, thanks to Trent Meacham's 24 points and a series of turnovers on the Toppers part. (I would like to point out that most of those turnovers I never saw, thanks the CBS switching to the VCU-UCLA game...I appreciate that).

Much like the Tops are accustomed to, they gave away a cushy 17-point lead for the much-tighter constraints of a single-digit dogfight (sorry to any PETA supporters) of which they could have as easily lost as won.

A few heart-stopping plays later, especially the ridiculously bad call by the refs on the in-bounds play for the Toppers with about 1:20 to go in the second half, the Tops prevailed to move on.

But something really struck me about my alma mater after the game, and it was not the fact they played away a big lead or their ability to hold court when Illinois gave its best punch. What struck me most was the looks on the Toppers' faces that said, "We belong here. We can and should beat any and all comers." To me, that's the type of look true champions exude.

Now, am I saying I think they'll walk out of Detroit with the NCAA trophy in there hands? Probably not (but it doesn't mean the homer in me can't dream of a tourney trophy displayed prominently in E.A. Diddle Arena.) What I am saying is you can bet money on this team to march through the tournament, putting on both wins and a show.

And, once you've seen them play, they'll have you humming "Let's hear it for the boys" along with me.