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When the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee basketball team rolled into Chicago late Tuesday night, they didn't come riding in an ornate pumpkin coach being pulled by mice that had been changed into horses by some fairy godmother. Leave the ugly stepsisters out of it, for this is no Cinderella story.
The glass-slippered girl was not supposed to be at the ball, but Milwaukee comes to this dance with an invitation - one etched in its own blood, and smeared with its sweat. And the Panthers are coming in right through the front door.
"We don't see ourselves as underdogs, or look at this as any kind of surprise. Not at all," UWM junior Derrick Ford said. "We've been playing like this all season. It's just that not a lot of people got to see us until we made it to the NCAA tournament."
Ford and fellow Scott High graduate Rob Sanders are part of the Milwaukee team that has lost just one game since Jan. 4, winning 19 of the last 20. The Panthers disposed of Alabama in the first round of the NCAA, and then beat Boston College to advance to the Sweet Sixteen and tonight's meeting in Rosemont, Ill., with No. 1 ranked Illinois.
"This whole experience is like one of those things you dream about as a little kid - playing the number one team in the country in the NCAA tournament," Sanders said.
"It is very exciting and we are really enjoying the ride, but nobody should look at it like we're shocked to advance this far and to be playing Illinois. We're honored to be getting all of this attention, but at the same time we are a very confident team. We don't feel like the two games we've won so far were upsets, so this isn't any kind of fairy-tale thing. We feel like we can compete with anybody."
The Panthers (26-5) had to outlast Detroit 59-58 in the final of the Horizon League tournament just to make the NCAA field. UWM then threatened to bury Alabama in a blizzard of 3-pointers in the first round of the NCAA, building a lead of 17 points before winning 83-73. A 28-10 run made the difference in an 83-75 win over Boston College that vaulted Milwaukee into the national spotlight.
"All season long we practiced with nobody around," UWM associate head coach Tony Jones said, "and then the first practice back in Milwaukee after we beat Boston College, there are 25 television cameras set up in the gym. It has been that kind of whirlwind for us."
Jones, a former assistant at the University of Toledo, said when the team returned home following its opening round success in Cleveland it was greeted by a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Milwaukee airport.
"As a coach, it's great to see these kids experience this because we know how hard they've worked to get here," Jones said. "But we don't look at it like we're some little mid-major busting its way into the Big Dance. We've beaten some quality opponents and we've been in some hostile environments, and in the two NCAA tournament games we've played, we pretty much controlled those games. Are we excited? Absolutely. But are we shocked to be here? Absolutely not."
Sanders, a senior who has had his playing time limited this season by a shoulder injury, started his career at UT where he red-shirted in the 2000-2001 season before transferring to Milwaukee. The two-time All-City performer who once scored 29 points in a half in a high school game, is the only Panther with any NCAA tournament experience prior to this year, since he was a member of the 2003 team that faced Notre Dame in the post-season.
"I think that might have helped some in the Alabama game, since I had been there before and could talk to the guys about it, but once we advanced I think they understood the whole thing," Sanders said. "It's a little bittersweet for me since I've been hurt and not able to play much, but I'm here as an insurance policy in case we get into foul trouble, and I can kind of act like an extra coach the rest of the time."
Sanders, who said his ailing shoulder will require surgery following the season, has played in 10 games for the Panthers this season. Ford has played in 31 games as a backup center in his first season with UWM after spending two years at Olney Central Community College.
"Both of those guys have had a huge impact on this team and this program," Jones said, "and it is really a thrill to watch them enjoy the success we've had here. They have a special place in my heart because they're a couple of Toledo kids who said yes to this university and yes to me and brought their talents to Milwaukee. We've been able to do some pretty exciting things because we've had quality kids like these two guys to work with."
Ford, who was All-City and All-Ohio, said Milwaukee has benefited from outstanding team chemistry and an ability to keep pressure on the opposition. The team's best player is senior Ed McCants (17.5 points per game) from Marion Catholic, where he was Ohio's Division IV player of the year in 2000, but Ford said there has been a different hero every night.
"The whole team has great energy, and we put everything we have into every possession," Ford said. "There are no egos here, and everybody has a piece of pie. People will probably call us big underdogs against Illinois, and that's fine. We're athletes competing against athletes, and you don't get this far by sneaking up on teams. Right now, everybody should know who we are."
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