A First For Wisconsin School

Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Justin Lettenberger, right, celebrates in the second half of the Horizon League championship game. Tuesday, March 11, 2003, in Milwaukee. Butler's Darnell Archey is at left. Wisconsin-Milwaukee won 69-52. AP

Wisconsin-Milwaukee ended a long NCAA tournament drought in style Tuesday night as the Panthers cruised to the Horizon League title. Indian University-Purdue University-Indianapolis and Western Kentucky also claimed automatic bids.

That brings the number of automatic qualifiers for the tournament to 12. Brackets for the 65-team field will be revealed Sunday.

Wisconsin-Milwaukee 69, Butler 52

After a long wait, the Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers wasted no time in qualifying for their first NCAA tournament.

The Panthers raced to a 21-4 lead and cruised past Butler 69-52 Tuesday night in the Horizon League tournament championship.

Tournament MVP Clay Tucker said the Panthers were still smarting over losing the regular-season crown to Butler on a last second shot March 1.

"I'll tell you what really sparked this team was the fact that they took one from us. They put a dagger in our hearts," Tucker said. "We wanted to jump on them, throw the first punch and never let them back up.

"And that's just what we did."

This was top-seeded Butler's sixth league title game in seven years and second-seeded Milwaukee's first in school history. But neither team played like it.

With its automatic bid, Milwaukee (24-7) will be the third school from the state headed to the NCAA tournament, joining eighth-ranked Marquette and No. 18 Wisconsin, both of which won their respective regular-season conference championships.

"This is a proud moment for this university," said Pearl, who took over the program when Bo Ryan went to Wisconsin two years ago. "UWM deserves this. Our students deserve this. Our alumni deserve this."

The Bulldogs (25-5), who won the Horizon League's regular-season crown 76-74 over Milwaukee on freshman Avery Sheets' 3-point buzzer-beater earlier this month, will have to wait until Sunday to see if they get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament

They expected one last year, but had to settle for the NIT instead.

"I really hope this isn't it," said Butler senior Joel Cornette, who broke down crying in the interview room. "I hope people take note of what we've done and put us in the dance."

The Bulldogs are considered the top mid-major school in the nation, with an RPI rating of 35.

"I don't know what else we could do," Bulldogs coach Todd Lickliter said. "We were 'rewarded' for the conference championship (by spending) six days in a hotel and then playing basically in front of a home crowd against a great team."

IUPUI 66, Valparaiso 64

All anybody used to notice about Indiana-Purdue-Indianapolis were the hyphens. Now the Jaguars are headed to the NCAA tournament.

Matt Crenshaw hit an 18-foot jump shot with 1 second left, giving IUPUI a 66-64 win over Valparaiso in the finals of the Mid-Continent Conference tournament Tuesday night and their first trip to the NCAAs.

The Jaguars (20-13) earned an automatic bid in only their fifth season in Division I.

"Nobody thought we could do this," coach Ron Hunter said. "No one but us."

Nine years ago, Hunter took over a team coming off a 9-18 record in its first season in Division II. IUPUI was known as the Metros back then. Just four years later, the Metros became the Jaguars and moved up to Division I.

That's why beating top-seeded Valpo — winner of seven of the last eight conference tournaments and the only Mid-Continent team with any national name recognition — was so sweet for the second-seeded Jaguars, who were blown out 88-55 by the Crusaders in last year's title game.

"People laugh at our gym," said senior forward Josh Murray, who was derided himself two years ago when he transferred from Ball State — one year after playing in the NCAA tournament with the Cardinals.

"They laugh at our name, or they can't even say our name right. I guess we got the last laugh."

Western Kentucky 64, Middle Tennessee 53

Western Kentucky is headed to the NCAA tournament for the third straight year, so the thrill of making the cut is gone. This time around, the Hilltoppers want to advance.

"We don't want a first-round beatdown," point guard Patrick Sparks said after scoring 12 points and handing out seven assists in Western Kentucky's 64-53 championship win over Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt Conference tournament Tuesday night.

The Hilltoppers, who earned the conference's automatic bid, lost to Stanford 84-68 last year and Florida 69-56 the year before that.

The Hilltoppers have 18 NCAA tournament appearances, going 15-19 in 34 tournament games. Western is returning to the tournament for the sixth time since 1990.

In 2001 Western was a No. 14 seed and a No. 9 seed last year.

"We can just sit back and see who we play," Mike Wells, who led the Hilltoppers with 18 points, said.

  • John Esterbrook

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