There is something strange and perhaps wonderful happening in Bowling Green, Kentucky. After starting 5-12, WKU fired its head coach halfway through the season. The Tops proceeded to lose their next three games, but that was before Harper Mania had fully set it. At my last writing, I was giddily tapping away about a double-digit home win over Sun Belt West-leading UALR. In its next game, WKU went on to control a road contest at FAU for 36 minutes, before coughing up a nine-point lead in the last four minutes, resulting in a heart-breaking loss. They recovered by handling FIU by ten last weekend.
That leads us to tonight. When a team is 7-15 and plays below the Red Line, expected attendance may not even begin with a crooked number. But, as I tell anyone who will listen, WKU is not your run-of-the-mill "mid-major," and interim head coach Ray Harper is not your run-of-the-mill interim. And, WKU is no longer playing run-of-the-mill basketball, having now won three of four, with the loss being that giveaway at FAU.
Let's start with this: the 7-15 Hilltoppers drew nearly 6,407 fans tonight, a season high, and a number that outpaces the attendance for some very good Topper teams in recent years. A big part of that stems from the improved play of late. Many believe Harper is the direct cause of that progress, and the hearty support I mentioned in my last write-up has turned into a full-blown groundswell. You want evidence? Below is a Big Head of Ray Harper. There were 1,000 of these handed out as folks entered the arena. That's right: one thousand.
The WKU administration will ultimately make this head coaching hire. But, Topper Nation is falling into line behind their interim coach, and it is absolutely impossible not to see the massive endorsement from the Big Red faithful. Tonight was something to behold: the Big Heads, the 6,400 folks rockin' the house for a 8-15 team, the wild support. It's fascinating.
On the court tonight, there were two bad-shooting teams who love to get on the glass. South Alabama came in ranked second in this grand collection of states in Offensive Rebounding percentage. They managed to maintain their robust 43% average in this game, but WKU bested them by retrieving 45% of its misses. The Toppers have thrived on forcing turnovers lately, but Team USA won that battle with a +4 margin. Free throws were even with 11 makes each. No, this was a win built on a rare, good shooting night by WKU as the Toppers nailed 6-14 (43%) from deep and also tossed in 59% of their twos. Much of this came via junior point guard Jamal Crook, who missed his first field goal attempt, then netted all nine of his remaining shots and all five free throws en route to a career high 24 points.
It was a close affair throughout much of the contest, with WKU doing all it could to neutralize USA sophomore big man Augustine Rubit. Big, strong, and athletic, he is an absolute handful in the low blocks. WKU junior Teeng Akol performed admirably with 13 points, five rebounds, and five blocks which helped offset Rubit's 20 points and eight rebounds, ALL of which on the offensive end (that's right: eight offensive rebounds, zero defensive rebounds). The teams battled to a tie at half. But, leading by one early in the second half, WKU used an 8-0 burst to take a nine-point lead that it would never relinquish. USA got to within four once, but a series of slithery Jamal Crook forays to the rim sparked a 13-4 run that slammed the door on Team USA once and for all.
A packed Diddle Arena brings fun and noise. It brings a community under one roof to cheer in unison. Over the years, it has brought a lot of wins. And, tonight, it brought a grand stack of interim coach Ray Harper Big Heads in an effort to remove that "interim" label. And, the Tops' performance certainly did not hurt in that regard.
at WESTERN KENTUCKY 75, SOUTH ALABAMA 66 02/04/2012
SOUTH ALABAMA 12-10 (4-7) -- C. Clark 8-14 1-2 22; A. Rubit 7-12 6-9 20; M. Ammons 3-11 0-1 7; T. Anderson 2-8 0-0 5; F. Goldstein 4-12 0-0 11; A. Lundy 6-9 3-4 15; J. Carter 1-2 0-0 2; W. Wright 1-1 1-2 3; D. Jones 1-2 1-2 3. Totals 25-57 11-18 66. WESTERN KENTUCKY 8-15 (4-6) -- J. Crook 9-10 5-5 24; D. Gordon 2-10 0-2 4; G. Fant 5-6 2-3 12; T. Akol 6-9 0-0 13; K. McDonald 1-6 3-4 6; V. Zollo 1-4 0-0 2; N. Snipes 1-3 0-0 2; T. Price 4-5 0-1 11; O. Akamune 0-0 1-2 1; S. Sheldon 0-0 0-0 0; J. Starks 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-53 11-17 75.
Three-point goals: USA 5-11 (T. Anderson 1-1; M. Ammons 1-2; F. Goldstein 3-7; D. Jones 0-1), WKU 6-14 (T. Akol 1-1; J. Crook 1-1; K. McDonald 1-4; D. Gordon 0-2; T. Price 3-4; N. Snipes 0-1; V. Zollo 0-1); Rebounds: USA 28 (A. Rubit 8), WKU 32 (G. Fant 8); Assists: USA 14 (T. Anderson 5), WKU 13 (J. Crook 6); Total Fouls -- USA 16, WKU 16; Fouled Out: USA-T. Anderson; WKU-None.