NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Every year the NCAA Tournament delivers upsets and buzzer-beaters. It’s what makes the Big Dance one of the greatest spectacles in sports.
Thirty-five years ago this week it was Austin Peay that turned in one of the biggest upsets in the tourney’s history.
Today you will find Tony Raye teaching seventh graders at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Metro Nashville about environmental issues facing the world today. But on March 13, 1987, it was Raye that hit two free throws with :02 left to lift Austin Peay over Illinois 68-67 in the tournament’s first round.
"The stars were just aligned," Raye told NewsChannel 5 last week. "I had a mission to accomplish because our team was trying to make history."
The story of the improbable upset starts well before Raye toed the foul line in those final seconds, however. After an up and down regular season, Austin Peay had to run off three consecutive comeback wins, earning a tournament berth when Richie Armstrong drilled about a 30-foot jumper as time expired in the conference tournament final.
"We really didn’t have a shot until that final shot of the OVC Tournament," Raye said. "And that’s what snuck us into the Big Dance."
The Governors made it in as a No. 14 seed and would face No. 3 seed Illinois in round one in Birmingham, Alabama. The Fighting Illini were led by All-American Ken Norman and a host of pros, coached by future Hall of Fame inductee Lou Henson.
After a strong Big Ten season, Illinois was picked by everyone to handle Peay and had become a trendy national championship pick.
"Then a little bit of doubt crept into our minds," Raye admitted. "We saw them play on TV and knew they had an All-American. We knew they had a great coach. Everyone, when they were going through the pairings, would say, 'oh, this is an easy win for Illinois.'"
The most vocal member of the chorus of doubters was ESPN’s Dick Vitale, who said there was no way that Austin Peay could beat Illinois. The legendary analyst even doubled down, saying that he would stand on his head on national TV if the Govs could somehow pull off the upset.
Illinois led the game early, but a halftime buzzer-beater pulled Austin Peay within three and gave it momentum.
"That’s when we realized, 'hey, this could happen,'" Raye said. "Everybody was gassed up and it was just like, 'hey, here we go. This is our time.'"
The Illini still led by one when Raye was fouled with just :02 left, sending the 56% free throw shooter to the line.
The pressure was on. Make one and you likely force overtime. Make them both and the Govs could topple one of the sport’s giants.
"At first I was thinking, 'oh Lord,'" Raye said. "I’m thinking [you’ve got to] focus, take your time. During the timeout Coach Kelly never said anything to me. He just said what we were going to do after Tony makes these free throws. None of my teammates said anything to me. So, there was a lot of pressure at that moment."
Raye confidently stepped to the line and rattled home the first shot to tie the game at 67. His second shot hit the front of the rim, then the backboard and dropped in to give the Governors the lead.
When Norman’s final shot bounded off the rim, Cinderella had pulled the upset heard around the college basketball world.
"We realized what happened. We started running around the court," Raye said. "Our fans, which are the greatest fans in the world, just went berserk. And of course, as soon as we won, they said the switchboards were lighting up and Dick Vitale was true to his word and he stood on his head."
It’s a March Madness moment — and upset — that lives on, even 35 years later.
"We’re still in the top 20 upsets of all-time in NCAA Tournament history," Raye said. "It’s something that we’re extremely proud of and no one can ever take away from us."