Lee Remembers Cinderella Run at WKU

BOSTON – Courtney Lee’s 16th-seeded Western Kentucky Hilltoppers are scheduled to take on Paul Pierce’s No. 1-seeded Kansas Jayhawks at 9:50 p.m. tonight in Kansas City, Mo. An upset it unlikely, but don’t call it impossible.

Lee would be the first to tell you that. He has worn the Cinderella slipper before, and he did it at Western Kentucky.

The year was 2008 and the Hilltoppers had entered the NCAA tournament as the 12th seed in the West region. They hadn’t even won their under-the-radar Sun Belt conference in the regular season, but they managed to make it into the tournament and were ready to do some damage.

Lee was chief among those who were motivated to make some noise on the national stage. He had spent three seasons at Western Kentucky without a sniff of the NCAA tournament. This, at last, was his year.

“It was just a great experience,” Lee told Celtics.com about finally participating in the tournament. “I didn’t get there until my senior year and we had a good team and went on a run.”

A run that will never be forgotten by anyone who watched that tournament.

Western Kentucky’s Cinderella ride began in the first round when it took on the fifth-seeded Drake Bulldogs. Drake was 28-5 entering the game and had won the Missouri Valley Conference outright. The Bulldogs were strong and they were favored, but they had no idea what was about to hit them.

Western Kentucky battled throughout the game and was able to take Drake into overtime. It looked as if that was all Lee’s team would do after Drake’s Jonathan Cox hit two free throws with six seconds remaining in the overtime session to put his team on top 99-98.

What happened next will live on forever in the lore of Western Kentucky basketball. Lee watched it unfold first hand, and you can watch it here from a fan’s perspective:

Ty Rogers’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer sent the arena into pure March Madness. Following the game, Western Kentucky head coach Darrin Horn described the thriller with the following words: “I think what you just saw out there is why this is the greatest show on Earth.”

That shot propelled Western Kentucky into the second round, where it met an unexpected opponent, the San Diego Toreros. San Diego, a 13th seed, was trying to wear the coveted slipper, too.

“San Diego beat (fourth-seeded) UConn,” Lee remembered. “We were looking forward to playing UConn, but then we got San Diego, so we played against them.”

And beat them, thanks to Lee.

Lee exploded in the Round of 32 to dominate San Diego. Lee was unstoppable during that game, and he was more than happy to reminisce about the performance while chatting with Celtics.com.

“I think I had one of my best games of the tournament there,” Lee proudly stated. “I think I scored 29.”

Right on the dot. Lee shot 9-of-15 from the field and hit four of his five 3-pointers to help extend the Hilltoppers’ Cinderella run. Western Kentucky and Villanova tied for the lowest seeds to advance into the Sweet 16 that year.

Things weren’t so sweet for Western Kentucky in that following round. The Sweet 16 is where Lee’s team met up with a UCLA buzzsaw that was even more loaded than this year’s Kansas team. Lee remembers vividly how much talent was on that UCLA roster.

“They had (Russell) Westbrook, Kevin Love, (Luc) Mbah a Moute. They had Darren Collison and Josh Shipp, who went overseas,” Lee said. “So they had four NBA players and one overseas player in their starting lineup.”

Lee also remembers that his team went toe-to-toe with the top-seeded Bruins and held its ground.

“We took them down to the wire,” he remembered. “It was a [four]-point game with six minutes to go. I think we ran out of gas and they had a lot of firepower to keep it going.”

UCLA wound up winning 88-78 and Lee’s collegiate career came to an end. However, that day didn’t arrive before his team made an unexpected run to the Sweet 16 and threw a scare into the top seed in its region of the bracket.

Lee is holding out hope that a similar type of run can begin tonight for his alma mater. Lee has actually gone on the record on Celtics.com for picking his team to beat Kansas tonight. He’s confident that his Hilltoppers can top the Jayhawks.

If you don’t understand why, look no further than his personal connection to the team. He thinks highly of these players, as he explains in this personal Western Kentucky scouting report:

“George Faint, he grew up around the school and then he wound up going there. He’s like a Charles Barkley – an undersized four-man, but super strong and can rebound and can score.

“Jamal Crook is going to be the factor. He was out a while with a broken foot then he came back, so he’s the anchor of the team. About a 6-4 point guard who can penetrate, get in the lane and score.

“There’s a guy named Teeng (Akol) who can block shots and rebound, so that’s his role.

“T.J. (Price), he’s the 3-point shooter. He’s the shooter. Gotta get him some shots.”

There’s four guys to keep an eye on tonight. Maybe they can bring the Cinderella slipper back to Western Kentucky five years after Lee did, all while giving Lee the bragging rights in Boston’s locker room.