One school’s NCAA tournament nightmare is another’s shining moment. For Austin Peay, there has never been a bigger win than the one it earned 25 years ago this month. Against Illinois. Governors 68, Illini 67.
The big guy hadn’t kept nailing three-pointers. five times Darryl Bedford, all 6-foot-8, 275 pounds of him, stepped beyond the arc and put a dagger in the Illinois defense.
“He was not exactly a muscle-bound kid,” said Dan Bonner, who broadcast the game. “It looked like he spent some time at the buffet line. he stood outside the arc and fired up threes. That demoralized Illinois more than anything else. those were the days when big guys didn’t shoot threes. Illinois didn’t go out and guard him.”
The Illini had been a little less confident.
“One of our guys said, ‘Who do we play?’ ” then-Illinois coach Lou Henson said. “They said, ‘Austin Peay.’ he said, ‘Who do we play next?’ That tells you a lot right there.”
Tony Raye wasn’t such a deadeye at the line. he hit the winning free throws with two seconds left.
“That first one had a little nerve on it,” Raye said. “It bounced around. That was the biggest shot of my life.”
Ken Norman had made the last-second shot. Just like he had two months earlier to beat Wisconsin.
Against Austin Peay, the 15-footer bounced off the rim and Norman slumped to the floor.
“He got a great shot off,” Austin Peay guard Richie Armstrong said. “They drew up a great play. he had a wide-open look at the elbow. he just missed the shot.”
Dick Vitale hadn’t tempted Illinois’ fate. At the ESPN studio in Bristol, Conn., with Austin Peay leading in the second half, Vitale said he would stand on his head if the Governors won.
“I just thought Illinois was too strong and didn’t have a chance to lose to them,” Vitale said. “Obviously, I was wrong.”
In February 1987, a trip to the NCAA tournament seemed like an impossibility for Lake Kelly’s Governors. Austin Peay was 10-10 overall and an ugly 2-5 in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Somehow, they turned their season around, winning six consecutive games. The only February loss came against Murray State, which hit a halfcourt shot at the buzzer. Otherwise, it was all Govs.
The fourth-place team hosted Morehead State in the OVC quarterfinals. And sucked eggs. Trailing by 22 points midway through the second half, a disgusted Kelly benched his starters. And launched a comeback for the ages. Raye’s steal and slam in the final minute moved Austin Peay into the semifinals.
Against Middle Tennessee, the Governors needed to rally again. This time, they trailed by 10 with five minutes left. then, Bedford went nuts. he hit the tying and winning baskets, part of his career-high 36-point game.
In the OVC finale, the Governors led Eastern Kentucky by 10 points late in the second half. but the Colonels tied it 68-68 in the final seconds. Unable to find an open teammate, Austin Peay point guard Richie Armstrong drilled a spinning 30-foot three-pointer for the 71-68 win.
“It was pandemonium,” Armstrong said.
The Governors were off to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 13 years.
“Every now and then I pop the DVD in and watch it,” Armstrong said.
Once they reached Birmingham, Ala., the Governors enjoyed themselves. a lot. As the no. 14 seed playing no. 3 Illinois, there was little outside pressure.
Kelly, who passed away in March 2009 after complications from kidney stones, knew how to motivate his players.
The night before the game, Kelly loaded up — what else? — “Hoosiers” for his big-time underdogs. must have been channeling his inner Norman Dale during his pregame instructions:
“Sic ‘em,” Kelly said at the time. “If we had to play the Lakers and Celtics combined, it wouldn’t have made any difference.”
Illinois entered the NCAA tournament as a dark-horse national title contender. Norman averaged 20.7 points and 9.8 rebounds to lead the team. Seniors Doug Altenberger and Tony Wysinger were double-figure scorers. So was sophomore Lowell Hamilton. And Glynn Blackwell averaged 9.9.
Before Austin Peay, 12th-ranked Illinois was rolling. It had won nine of its last 11. The two losses were close games against no. 4 Iowa and no. 6 Purdue.
Road trips hadn’t been an issue for the veteran team, the Illini winning at Michigan and Michigan State by a combined 27 points in the final week of the regular season.
“Talented, big and athletic,” said then-Austin Peay assistant Rick Stansbury, now the head coach at Mississippi State.
Austin Peay wasn’t in awe of the talented, big and athletic Illini. The Governors knew they had advantages.
“We were small,” Stansbury said. “But we were very, very quick and good defensively.”
The Governors used that quickness in the first half to stay close. a basket at the buzzer made it 32-32.
“The longer we could hang around, the tighter it would get for Illinois,” Stansbury said. “That’s what happens.”
Midway through the second half, Austin Peay took a seven-point lead. but Wysinger carried Illinois back. His jumper from the free throw line with 13 seconds left gave Illinois a 67-66 lead.
The clock ticking, Austin Peay didn’t call a timeout. Instead, it raced the ball up the court, straight into trouble.
Armstrong, the hero in the OVC tournament, made a big mistake. Dribbling along the baseline, he found himself trapped by four defenders: Wysinger, Altenberger and two out-of-bounds lines.
“I remember it so vividly,” Armstrong said. “It was a bonehead play. That was a cardinal sin to drive into the corner.”
Armstrong spun and saw an open Raye near the basket. he whipped a pass to his teammate, who was fouled by Norman with two seconds left. Norman had no choice.
“Right place, right time,” Raye said. “I was always going for offensive rebounds. I wasn’t a main scoring threat, so I think they were sagging off of me.”
There was a timeout before Raye went to the line.
“I was nervous,” Raye said. “No one spoke to me during the timeout. Coach Kelly made plans for after I made the free throw.”
Raye shot the first free throw with confidence. Good.
“Once he hit the first one, the second one was gold,” Armstrong said. “They were perfect free throws.”
Raye had some practice before the final two shots. he had earlier hit 4 of 7 free throws. all six of his points came at the line.
“I was confident, but I had never been in that type of situation before,” Raye said. “The stars were just lined up for everything to happen that day against Illinois.”
The Governors had to survive two more seconds.
Norman missed the last shot and fell to the floor. Armstrong tried to help him up without success.
“He just didn’t want to move,” Armstrong said.
“They were shocked,” Raye said. “They couldn’t believe it.”
Back in the locker room after the game, there wasn’t any chair throwing or cooler punching. Just a bunch of kids who needed a hug.
“It was a huge, huge disappointment,” then-Illinois assistant Mark Coomes said. “It was consoling each other.”
Those listening to Voice of the Illini Jim Turpin didn’t need to know the score. they could tell by his tone that the game hadn’t gone his favorite team’s way.
“I always led with my emotion,” Turpin said. “I was probably more emotional than I was professional in some occasions because I was such a fan.”
While Austin Peay celebrated the win, Illinois trudged back to its locker room.
“It was total devastation,” Turpin said. “They really had high hopes and expected to win.”
When the team returned to Willard Airport, there wasn’t a crowd waiting. Or anybody. The postgame greeting would have to wait two years for the Flyin’ Illini.
Bedford, who was a fourth-round pick by Milwaukee in the 1987 draft, finished with a game-high 24 points.
“He came away from that basket and brought their big guy away from the basket,” Stansbury said. “We were hard to guard.”
“He really hurt us,” Coomes said.
Kelly had heard about Vitale’s vow and mentioned it after the game. in a nice way.
“Thank you, Dick,” Kelly said.
As promised, Vitale stood on his head. His co-workers at ESPN couldn’t wait.
“They all came running into the studio and they said, ‘Man, you better stand on your head. The phones are ringing off the hook,’ ” Vitale said. “They stood me up on the desk. I did it right away.”
The Austin Peay promise became part of Vitale’s legacy. The Basketball Hall of Famer meant no offense. Vitale was simply following the rules of broadcasting he learned early in his career.
“I’ve always believed that television is part of entertainment,” Vitale said. “We sometimes as analysts want to play to the coaches, our buddies, and we overtechnicalize the game.
“I’ve always tried to inject some humor, some excitement, some enthusiasm, during my presentation.”
Vitale’s head standing was a two-part event.
He was invited to Austin Peay’s spring banquet as the featured speaker, which he happily accepted. The folks in Clarksville, Tenn., wanted to see an upside-down Vitale. Armstrong and Mike Hicks held Vitale’s legs.
“It was loads of fun,” Vitale said. “I never did it again. I’m not very gymnastic. I have two left feet. I’m really a clod.”
Austin Peay’s fun lasted two days. but it could have gone on longer. in the second round, the Governors led Providence late and had a chance to take the game in regulation. but Bob Thomas missed the front end of a one-and-one, forcing overtime. Rick Pitino’s Friars won 90-87 in overtime on their way to the Final Four.
“It’s a fine line,” Stansbury said. “Every game comes down to one play here or there. we happened to be on the right side of the line that game (against Illinois). we were on the wrong side in the second round. (Pitino) may still be at Providence if we win that game. That’s what a fine line it was.”
Now living in the Baltimore area, Armstrong works as a motivational speaker.
But he has had some down times since the big win. Plenty of them. Times he talks about openly.
“I made some mistakes after I left school,” Armstrong said. “My life didn’t go as planned.”
Armstrong got involved in “the drug game” and ended up spending time in prison. His life is back on track now. Armstrong speaks to kids across the country.
Raye said the win against Illinois helped open career doors for him later in life. he works as a special education teacher in Franklin, Tenn.
“That game transcended my life and steered me in this direction,” Raye said. “I think I got jobs because of this. I got special privileges.
“It gave me great self-esteem and gave me great confidence that any goal can be achieved. those things have stayed me with me. I’ve tried to instill them in my kids and in my students.”
Raye has stayed involved in sports, coaching track and basketball.
“Kids that need something extra, those are the things that motivate me,” Raye said. “I think it has some type of parallel to my playing days and us being the underdogs.”
In two weeks, Bonner will broadcast his 26th consecutive tournament. This year, he is working for the CBS/Turner Sports partnership. in 1987, the fresh-faced announcer was on the air for NCAA Productions.
Unlike today, not every game was broadcast nationally. Instead, local affiliates would air the games of their favorite schools. Folks in Champaign-Urbana watched and listened as Bonner and Bob Rathbun called Illinois-Austin Peay.
In 1986, his first year working the tournament, Bonner had 14th-seeded Cleveland State’s upset against third-seeded Indiana. That was the year John Feinstein followed the Hoosiers for his classic book, “A Season on the Brink.”
The day before the Illinois-Austin Peay game, Bonner watched the Illini practice.
“I was really impressed with Illinois,” Bonner said. “I was thinking, ‘Ooh, boy, these guys are pretty good.’ “
Bonner has done other upsets, including Northern Iowa beating Missouri in 1990 and Northern Iowa beating Kansas in 2010. Still, Austin Peay-Illinois ranks among his top five.
“People were talking about that Illinois team having Final Four potential,” Bonner said.
Until asked about it recently, Stephen Bardo didn’t realize the 25-year anniversary was coming up. he doesn’t think much about the loss.
“It’s not painful for me,” said Bardo, now an analyst for ESPN. “It was an opportunity for us to be in the tournament. we got upset. It’s part of basketball. It’s better than not going to the tournament.”
Bardo remembers four or five turnovers he made in the game. “There was one that was critical down the stretch,” he said.
The 1987 game was the first of four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances for Bardo. he reached the Final Four with the Flyin’ Illini in 1989.
“Unfortunately, they bookend,” Bardo said. “Freshman year, go out in the first round. Senior year, went out in the first round (against Dayton). I had a great Final Four run in between, so I can’t complain. we were a bucket away from going to the national finals. That’s a dream come true.
“You take the good with the bad.”
It’s been 25 years. The memories linger. Great for Austin Peay. a pain for Illinois.
“People still talk about that,” Henson said. “I don’t, but they do.”
The Illini didn’t wait long to exact revenge against the Governors. Austin Peay visited the Assembly Hall on Dec. 8, 1987, and left with a 100-62 loss.
“Why didn’t we have a couple of those points that night we played them (in the NCAA tournament)?” Henson said.
His guys got over the loss. Two years after one of the school’s NCAA tournament low points, the Illini reached the Final Four.
“Kids have a tendency to forget it and go on,” Henson said. “I never dwell too much on the losses. That’s history. There’s not a thing you can do about that unless you can use that game to improve.”
There’s more parity now than there was 25 years ago. a lot more.
Butler has played for the national title. Two years in a row. Virginia Commonwealth reached the 2011 Final Four. George Mason made it in 2006.
“I understand how good those little guys are,” Stansbury said. “I’ve been there.”
“People thought it was really terrible for a midmajor to beat you,” Henson said. “Well, they beat majors consistently now. The smaller schools can definitely win. everybody has pretty good talent these days.”
When it’s a 14 seed against a 3 or a 15 against a 2, Armstrong roots for the underdogs.
“All the time,” Armstrong said. “Even though I lose my pool every year, I pick the 15s and 16s to win because of what we did. I can’t help myself.”