LEXINGTON, Ky. --- Last year, Western Kentucky took a big step up the ladder of respectability with a win over instate rival Louisville.
This year, the Hilltoppers bypassed the stairs altogether and took the elevator.
Displaying a toughness and single-minded determination to record another eye-opening victory, Western Kentucky stunned No. 4 Kentucky 64-52 Thursday in the opening round of the NABC Classic at Rupp Arena. The unranked Hilltoppers made their pitch for the next round of polling by holding the Wildcats to 33 percent shooting from the field, forcing 20 turnovers and winning the battle of the boards 40-38.
"The game was played the way we like to play," Western Kentucky coach Dennis Felton said. "It was a very good, hard-fought game by players who really played with a lot of heart and a lot of pride, and I'm talking about both teams here."
While complimentary of the winners, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith begged to differ.
"I've certainly got to commend the Hilltoppers and Dennis Felton for the job they did," he said. "They outplayed us in every phase of the game. They out-toughed us, they out-worked us, they out-shot us -- really a disappointing effort on our part.
"We played selfishly. We didn't get any loose balls. I'm really looking for something positive we did."
Simply put, there was nothing to be found.
Kentucky trailed for all but 5:06 seconds of the season-opener for both teams. Western led for the final 23:28 after Mike Wells converted a three-point play to give his team a 32-30 advantage late in the first half. The Hilltoppers took that two-point lead into the locker room as UK was in the midst of a seven-minute scoreless streak that carried over to the 17:30 mark of the second half.
Smith didn't think the Cats' shooting could get much worse than the 40 percent (11 of 27) they posted in the first half, but it did. Kentucky scored only six points during a span of 14:14 as the Hilltoppers stretched their lead to 49-36 at the 10:46 mark, much to the delight of approximately 3,000 red-clad fans who drowned out the stunned UK fans for most of the night.
Western's decisive 22-6 run included a sequence of impressive scores by sophomore forward Todor Pandov, who hit a 3-pointer over UK preseason All-American Tayshaun Prince, grabbed a tough rebound and made the putback over Prince, and hitting a running drive over Marvin Stone in succession for seven of his nine points off the bench.
"Nothing he did surprised me," Felton said. "He's our most talented and versatile player."
There were plenty of heroes for WKU, though. Junior forward David Boyden made key shot after key shot en route to a game-high 15 points. Senior All-American center Chris Marcus pitched in with 13 points and 10 rebounds, and Derek Robinson, a former Bourbon County standout, hit one of his two 3-pointers with 44 seconds left to extend the lead from six to nine and seal the victory.
All of them outplayed UK's higher-profile personnel. Prince and Stone each had a modest 12 points to lead the Cats. Keith Bogans managed only eight points. Prince and Bogans combined to shoot 7-of-24 from the field and committed 10 turnovers.
"When you shoot the ball like that," Prince said before a long pause, "...you're just not going to win "
"Seems like we went forever without scoring... without even coming close to scoring," Bogans said.
Still, Kentucky had several chances in between to get back in the game, but could never string together a run. It looked like it was coming with just over two minutes left after Stone scored inside and Gerald Fitch scored off a steal to make it 58-52.
But Stone missed two free throws at the 1:54 mark, and after UK's defense held on the other end, the junior center missed an easy layup on the Cats' next possession. Robinson's trey followed, and the Hilltoppers walked out of Rupp Arena with a stunning win.
"I thought they played a lot harder when they needed it," Prince said of the Hilltoppers.
"They played harder than we did," Bogans added. "And if your shots aren't falling, you better make sure you play harder than the other team or you've got no chance to win."
"We're not getting any leadership," Smith said.
Kentucky played without starting point guard J.P. Blevins, a senior, and reserve guard Rashaad Carruth. Both players sat out with ankle sprains.
"Obviously missing J.P. Blevins was a big blow because we were so disorganized," said Smith, noting the Cats' 6-20 assist-to-turnover margin.
It marked only the second time in five meetings WKU has defeated UK, the other coming in 1971 when the Hilltoppers knocked the Cats out of the NCAA Tournament.
Felton sounded more interested in what his team would do with the victory than how they would celebrate it.
"I told our players right now what they've done leading up to this season, they've made themselves suspects for a lot of people across the country," he said. "People have had suspicions that this might be a pretty good team, but we want to do more than that. We don't want to just be suspects.... This game, because Kentucky is so good, the No. 4 team in the country and a team everyone agrees are national title conteders, this is a kind of opportunity for us to get some attention on a national level."
Western will face George Washington on Friday in the NABC Classic championship game at 8 p.m. The Colonials advanced with a 69-64 comeback victory over Marshall, who hit only two of 27 shots in the second half in squandering a 20-point lead.
Kentucky will face the Thundering Herd in the consolation game at 6 p.m.