DAYTON — Vinny Zollo left the court waving a towel and hugged Western Kentucky mascot “Big Red” after the Hilltoppers rallied for an exciting 59-58 triumph over Mississippi Valley State Tuesday night in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament at the Dayton Arena.
His first taste of March Madness was a memorable one.
“It was just a mix of emotions that goes on at the end of a game like that,” Zollo said afterward. “We were down pretty much for 35 minutes, playing miserable basketball. It was not us and not characteristic of what we like to do as a team.”
At times, it looked as though Western was going to be a one-and-done participant in its first tournament appearance in three years and trailed by 16 points with five minutes remaining. However, Western kept the faith in the midst of adversity.
“We just believed and that’s been the motto of our whole team — to come from behind,” Zollo said. “We had 15 guys out there who believed that we were going to win and it happened.”
Indeed, Western saved its best for last and moved into the second round of the tournament following an exciting comeback in front of President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“We just turned it on in the last five minutes,” said Zollo, who scored six points, and made his team’s two shots from long range against the Delta Devils. “Coach (Ray) Harper made a good tactical move by applying pressure to them and we were able to create momentum plays.”
Now the Hilltoppers shift their attention to top seeded Kentucky and will play the Wildcats in less than 48 at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville at 6:50 p.m. Thursday.
Originally, Zollo was supposed to be playing this season for the state’s flagship university after verbally committing to Kentucky following his sophomore season in high school, but a change in coaches altered those plans and Zollo reopened his commitment.
“A lot goes into that game,” he said. “I know a lot of guys are excited and they’re the overall No. 1 seed and for a reason. They’re a great team and they do a lot of things to disrupt what team’s like to do. Right now, it’s not so much about Kentucky as the belief that we have in the locker room. We’ve gone through so much adversity this entire year and it’s amazing how things came together.
“For us, it’s just like any other game.”
Zollo admitted that he was thinking about the possibility of playing Kentucky in the second round after the pairings were released on Sunday.
“No disrespect to Mississippi Valley State, but we knew coming into this game, we would have to beat a very good team and coach (Ray) Harper’s speech to us was to not look ahead,” the Western forward said. “Our motto the entire season has been one game at a time. I talked to my mom about it and my whole family and it is a big deal on the outside and on paper, but at the end of the day and it comes down to the game, we’re going to show up and lace them up just like they do.”
Prior to his senior season at George Rogers Clark High School, Zollo concluded a second wave of whirlwind offers on the recruiting trail and settled on Western Kentucky.
Just like what transpired on the recruiting trail, Zollo endured a roller-coaster ride in Bowling Green this year, that featured a change of coaches during the mid-season. The switch from Ken McDonald to Ray Harper ignited the Hilltoppers, who went 10-7 down the stretch and won the Sun Belt Conference, which sent the Hilltoppers into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.
Zollo admitted that playing in front of Obama was “crazy,” but an unforgettable experience.
“We were warming up and there was Mr. President sitting on the front row and it is a crazy experience, but it’s one I’ll definitely remember,” he said.
Aside from playing in front of Obama and Cameron, Zollo said the entire experience proved to be a memorable one.
“None of us had ever played in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “For us to come in here star struck and be able to get a win is great.”