There were nights during Courtney Lee's freshman year at Western Kentucky when he wondered if he had made a mistake.
Maybe, Lee thought, he should have stayed closer to his hometown of Indianapolis. Maybe he shouldn't have gambled on a young coach with a young program in a conference that gets multiple bids to the NCAA tournament once a decade.
The homesickness got so bad Lee would call his mother, Teer Butler, and tell her the kid from the big city didn't really feel right in Bowling Green, Ky., at the school nestled on the side of a hill that plays in the considerable shadows of instate powers Louisville and Kentucky.
And every time Teer Butler would tell her son to stick it out, that everything would be fine if he just relaxed, stayed patient and trusted coach Darrin Horn.
As usual, mom was right.
Four years later, the senior shooting guard and the upstart Hilltoppers (29-6) are still dancing, still dreaming and still eager to prove they belong with the big boys.
Western Kentucky plays top-seeded UCLA (33-3) in the West regional semifinals in Phoenix on Thursday, led by its silky smooth shooting guard who is hardly fazed by his team's sudden thrust into the national spotlight.
"Coming in, one of our goals was to win the conference championship so we can position ourselves to come here and play games, and we didn't want to stop with that," Lee said after the Hilltoppers beat San Diego in the second round on Sunday. "We wanted to come and make noise and win games."
They're winning them the same way they have for most of the last four years -- with a guard-heavy lineup that relies on hot outside shooting and a dash of grit.
Western Kentucky has averaged 24 wins a season during Lee's career, yet his consistent play -- his scoring average has risen from 14.9 points per game as a freshman to 20.5 this season, when he was named Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year -- has largely gone unnoticed. Mainly that's because of the Sun Belt's spot in the lower end of the college basketball food chain and the Hilltoppers' inability to deliver in the conference tournament.
In each of Lee's first three years, the Hilltoppers entered the conference tournament as a favorite only to come up short. No loss was more painful than a humbling 95-70 defeat to South Alabama in the 2006 title game, when a broken hand limited Lee's effectiveness.
The Hilltoppers waited anxiously on Selection Sunday, hoping their 23 wins would be enough to get an at-large bid to the NCAAs. It didn't happen. It rarely does in the Sun Belt, which received multiple tournament bids this year for the first time since 1994. Naturally, that made Lee wonder what it would take to get the Hilltoppers over the hump.
"I just remember thinking we had a chance and it seemed like it was taken away from us," he said. "It just makes you want to work harder to prove yourself."
Few players have worked harder the last two years than Lee, who has continued to flourish despite being the focal point of every opponent's game plan. Sag off him to keep his lean 6-foot-5 frame from slicing through the lane, and he'll bury a 3-pointer. Chase him around the perimeter, and he'll blow by you on his way to the rim.
"He's an extremely intelligent player," South Alabama coach Ronnie Arrow said. "He doesn't force anything and he understands how to get other players involved."
That's why it was no surprise during the final seconds of Western Kentucky's thrilling 101-99 overtime win over fifth-seeded Drake in the first round of the tournament on Thursday that the ball ended up not in Lee's hands, but in fellow senior Ty Rogers.
The two have spent the last four years riding the ups and downs of playing at a mid-major, and when Rogers' 26-footer floated through the net at the horn to give the Hilltoppers the win, it was Lee who led the celebration.
"We just wanted to stay together and play for each other," Lee said.
Sunday's win over San Diego wasn't quite as dramatic, but when the Toreros erased a 15-point deficit to take a slim 55-54 lead in the second half, it was Lee who led the charge back. He knocked down a 3-pointer to put the Hilltoppers in front, and made all six of his free throw attempts in the final minutes to finish off a 29-point performance that lifted Western Kentucky to the regional semifinals for the first time since 1993.
"Maybe now all of you can stop talking about, has Courtney stepped up? Did he have his 'A' game?" Horn said. "The kid won for us whether he scored 15 or 30. What about the block he had against Drake late in the game? What about the steal he had (against San Diego)? The kid's a tremendous player, he's got a great heart, and we would not be here without him, period."
It was the kind of performance that has NBA scouts eyeing his potential. As gifted as he is offensively, he's dedicated himself to becoming one of the team's better defenders. His 238 career steals are second on the school's all-time list and his 25 blocks this year are second on the team.
It's one of the reasons Lee decided to return for his senior year rather than test the NBA waters last spring, but it wasn't the only one.
"We had some unfinished business," he said. "Leaving here without getting to the tournament isn't something you want. I knew staying would help me become a better player, but really it was about us living up to our potential."
It's a potential that never looked better than it did over the weekend, when Lee proved he's no longer one of the best players the nation's never heard of.
"I don't like comparing guys, but I'll tell you, I'll take my guy against anybody," Horn said.
Right now, Horn's guy -- and the Hilltoppers -- are winning. Just like mom said.
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