Even though Austin Peay led by seven points in the second half, ESPN’s Dick Vitale was sure the Governors had no shot to beat Illinois.
In fact, he was so sure 14th-seeded APSU would lose the NCAA Tournament game on March 12, 1987, he made a bold promise on the air.
“If they win,” Vitale said, as he recalled in his book Living A Dream, “I’ll stand on my head.”
Illinois appeared to spare Vitale the embarrassment when Tony Wysinger gave the Illini a 67-66 lead with 13 seconds remaining.
But the Governors turned the tournament on its head — and forced Vitale to keep his head-stand promise.
Without calling a timeout, APSU hurried the ball downcourt, and Mike Hicks found Tony Raye under the basket. Raye was fouled on his layup attempt, and Illinois took a timeout in hopes of rattling him. Raye made only 56% of his free throws during the season.
He buried both free throws and Ken Norman’s 15-foot buzzer shot bounced off the rim, giving the Governors the moment judged the greatest in APSU sports history.
“That first one had a little nerve on it,” Raye told the Champaign (Ill.) News-Gazette in 2012. “It bounced around. That was the biggest shot of my life.”
It was an improbable NCAA Tournament appearance for APSU, which was was 10-10 entering February, including 2-5 in the Ohio Valley Conference. But the Governors turned their season around with a six-game winning streak.
After losing to Murray State in the regular-season finale on a half-court buzzer-beater, they swept the OVC Tournament for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1974.
APSU lost 90-87 in overtime to Rick Pitino’s Providence team – one that was led by Billy Donovan, now head coach of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder – in the round of 32. But the Governors’ victory against Illinois is still remembered as one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history.
And it made Vitale stand on his head.
“Well, I’d said I would, hadn’t I?” Vitale recounted in his book. “So I let the guys stand me on my head on the desk in front of the camera. It was a riot.”
Vitale even reprised his head stand at an APSU basketball banquet.
“They let loose on me with this cheer: ‘Let’s go Peay. Let’s go Peay. — On Vitale. On Vitale.”