Just a couple weeks ago in Boca Raton, the WKU Hilltoppers were playing one of their best games of the season. They led pre-season Sun Belt fave FAU by nine points at the under-four-minute media timeout. #HarperMania was beginning to swell, as the Tops had dispatched West Division leader UALR by double digits just days earlier. The flames of hopes burned bright during that brief media break. But a painful collapse ensued, one littered with turnovers as cow-eyed freshmen got tighter and tighter down the stretch, and the Owls stole one away in the waning seconds. It was part of the growing-up story of this freshman-heavy WKU club.
Fast forward to last night, as the two met up in Bowling Green, Kentucky for the return game with a lot at stake. An FAU win could keep them right in the mix for a Belt tourney bye, while a win for WKU would pull the Tops within a game of FAU in the East. The tie-break would favor WKU with the split, as the Toppers own a precious win over UALR, who has nearly locked up the #2 seed and the "best win" acts as the tie-breaker. While a bye is not possible for WKU, they are looking to avoid the 8/9 game with mighty Middle Tennessee lying in wait as the top seed.
The pregame included a trip to Lost River Pizza Company, a fantastic choice if you ever visit Bowling Green. Not only do I think they serve the best pie in town, they have the best libation selection as well. The joint was packed with Topper faithful, so after a delicious veggie pie, a tall Green Flash West Coast IPA, and some hearty conversation with excited fellow Hilltopper fans, I was primed. Not to mention that I am suffering from a raging case of #HarperMania (the support for the current interim to become head coach is strong, as evidenced in previous recaps).
Apparently, Ed Diddle has contracted #HarperMania as well, as he donned a interim coach Ray Harper Big Head for the game.
On top of all this hubbub, we managed to score "Red Towel" seats for this game. Yes, the family and I would watch from six rows behind the media at mid-court. I was almost close enough to read the credentialed sportswriters' Twitter feeds. It is a different experience down there. For example, only from this short distance could one see that FAU coach Mike Jarvis has the words "Coach Mike Jarvis" embroidered in scripted font on the back of his natty sweater vest just below the neck line. That's simply "Red Towel Seat" knowledge I cannot normally gather from my seats up in 205 (still great seats, but not "sweater vest reading" seats).
The contest itself was a tale of two halves, with FAU being the clear aggressor early. The Owls built an 11 point lead in short order, leading 22-11 at the ten minute mark. They controlled the paint on both ends and waterbug point guard Ray Taylor orchestrated the offense beautifully. During #HarperMania, WKU has been increasingly tough to score against and freshman power forward George Fant did some hard work in the paint to keep the Tops in the game. So, while FAU could not run away, they held a comfy 32-24 lead at the half.
The second half seemed to be a window into the future of WKU hoops. Too often, this young club has settled for jumpers, and they are not a good jump-shooting team. For this half, the Tops were singularly focused on getting the ball to the aforementioned Fant inside and attacking the offensive glass. It worked well, as Fant rolled up a 20 and 10 (five offensive rebounds) on the night and fellow freshman Derrick Gordon did great cleanup work and amassed 13 and 12 (six O-rebs). Both guys are true freshmen, and the tandem controlled the boards on the offensive end. Defensively, the young Tops stayed focused, pushing FAU's talented guards further and further out, pestering them into 17 turnovers (25% of their possessions). This relentless defense erased the FAU lead relatively quickly, and while the game remained close until pretty late, the Tops clearly dictated the action over the last 16 minutes or so and closed the game on a 12-4 run.
It has been quite a journey for this very young Topper team (62% of minutes were play by true freshmen last night, similar to most every night). They seem to be getting better as they head toward March, winning four of their last seven after a 1-8 stretch sandwiched around a mid-season firing of their coach. Any club with hopes of winning the Belt tourney probably would rather not see WKU's improving defense and increasingly confident and active freshmen in their path.
Dost the streamers of victory fall from the heavens like God's rain on the joyous conquerors, or rather stretch skyward in praise, thanks, and humble gratitude for lives that allow us to enjoy such? On this night for the Topper faithful, both/and.
at WESTERN KENTUCKY 64, FLORIDA ATLANTIC 57 02/16/2012
FLORIDA ATLANTIC 11-15 (7-6) -- R. Taylor 2-12 2-2 6; K. White 3-8 0-0 6; S. Richardson 3-8 0-0 8; J. McCoy 6-8 2-2 14; A. Tucker 1-5 0-1 2; D. Mavin 5-10 0-0 10; P. Bertone 3-7 0-0 7; G. Gantt 2-6 0-0 4; K. Penn 0-1 0-0 0; A. Mattison 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-65 4-5 57. WESTERN KENTUCKY 9-17 (5-8) -- J. Crook 3-16 1-2 7; G. Fant 6-10 8-11 20; T. Price 1-4 0-0 3; D. Gordon 5-9 3-5 13; T. Akol 5-7 0-2 10; K. McDonald 2-7 5-5 9; V. Zollo 0-2 2-2 2; N. Snipes 0-0 0-0 0; O. Akamune 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-55 19-27 64.
Three-point goals: FAU 3-19 (K. White 0-1; S. Richardson 2-5; G. Gantt 0-3; R. Taylor 0-6; P. Bertone 1-4), WKU 1-9 (T. Akol 0-1; K. McDonald 0-4; G. Fant 0-1; T. Price 1-2; V. Zollo 0-1); Rebounds: FAU 36 (K. White 11), WKU 36 (D. Gordon 12); Assists: FAU 9 (R. Taylor 4), WKU 7 (J. Crook 4); Total Fouls -- FAU 23, WKU 11; Fouled Out: FAU-A. Tucker; WKU-None.