Those who have read my recaps this season know that the WKU Hilltoppers have been in the throes of #HarperMania for the last few weeks. The interim coach took over a 5-11 team that proceeded to lose its next three games, thus completing a 1-8 stretch during midseason. Since then, the once 5-14 Hilltoppers are 5-4 down the stretch and playing much better basketball, especially at home. This has resulted in the "interim" tag being scrubbed from "head coach Ray Harper's" title, and last night, 4,300 very loud Topper faithful came out in support. You can read a more robust telling of this interesting story over my last several WKU recaps.
Please permit me to make a "hoops junkie note" ahead of tomorrow's WKU season finale. Speaking as a hoops junkie, I must inform readers that the word from the WKU ticket office is that tomorrow's regular season finale versus league powerhouse Middle Tennessee will be very close to a sellout. A full 7,326 strong in Diddle is something to behold, and so is Middle Tennessee. The Raiders are very good, this rivalry is stout, and Diddle Arena will be a zoo. If you are in driving range, secure your ticket beforehand and make the trek tomorrow. As veteran WKU hoops observer, I can promise that tomorrow's environment will be fantastic. This is not so much WKU bias as it is knowledge of how great of a college hoops environment it will be. Diddle Arena has a domed metal roof and whatever it lacks in sound quality for concerts and such it makes up for in sheer volume for hoops. Further, Middle Tennessee will be a most worthy NCAA representative if their chalk holds up in the tourney and this will be a good mental test for them. They are the best team in the Belt, but must go into a bitter rival's sold-out gym to keep fringe NCAA at-large hopes alive. There are lots of reasons to attend if you enjoy this grand game of college hoops. Okay, on to the recap.
Last night, WKU hosted Arkansas State, who also has had a rough go of it this year. The Red Wolves are big and burly, and have two Final Four coaches on their bench in head man John Brady (former leader of LSU's Big Baby Era) and assistant Richard Williams, whose 1995-96 Mississippi State club went to the Final Four and was one of only two teams to topple the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats that season. With all this, Arkansas State has struggled this season at 12-18 overall including a ghastly 2-13 mark on the road. But, they were game in this one.
This affair was far from being the prettiest basketball game I have seen, but it was among the most entertaining of the season. The largest lead for either team was six points and the game included 15 ties and 16 lead changes. Further, the game ended on a buzzer-beating, game-winning threeball for the home-standing Toppers. It was also a result in which the winners felt like thieves and the losers felt like they gave one away. Consider the following from Arkansas State's perspective as a team trying to claw out a road win:
1. The Red Wolves gathered 19 offensive rebounds (57.6% of misses), and held WKU to three (15%).
2. Normally a terrible free throw shooting team (64% for the season), Arkansas State put up 31-38 from the line (81.2%), and outscored the home team by ten from the line.
3. Brady's bunch committed three fewer turnovers than WKU.
How does a win escape given these data? In this game, most of answer rests here: WKU, the worst shooting team in the Sun Belt, did a Denver impression by shooting 20-29 (69%) on their two-point field goals while assisting on 17 of 26 total makes (65.4%). WKU Denver'd Arkansas State. The Wolves dominated the glass and poured in free throws while WKU got the ball inside and, well, poured in free throws. Stat of the night (and maybe a candidate nationally!): these teams combined for 52-62 (84%) from the line. This extreme domination of various statistical categories eventually boiled down to WKU holding the ball with the clock dwindling. Arkansas State's full court trap had been effective in spurts and they employed it on the last possession. But WKU freshman guard Derrick Gordon navigated the press and dished to senior Kahlil McDonald with just a few seconds remaining. As the Wolves collapsed, McDonald found true freshmen T.J. Prince in the deep corner in front of the WKU bench and he launched a beautiful three that looked good from his hand all the way into the basket with two seconds remaining. Arkansas State could only manage a wild 60-foot heave at the horn as they were fresh out of timeouts.
As is the norm, true freshmen logged over 60% of the minutes last night for WKU (61.5%). The young Toppers have punted away a few wins down the stretch over the last few games, and they gave up a five point lead late in this one. But, instead of coughing up the win, they found a way to close the deal. They will need their best game of the season to beat Middle Tennessee tomorrow. But the Tops have won four in a row at home and will have the mightiest crowd of the season at their backs. And, hey, their head coach Ray Harper (no interim tag) is undefeated (1-0).
at WESTERN KENTUCKY 79, ARKANSAS STATE 76 02/23/2012
ARKANSAS STATE 12-18 (6-9) -- E. Townsel 3-8 1-2 8; T. Finn 3-7 6-8 14; B. Peterson 0-8 8-8 8; M. Hooten 2-12 5-8 9; M. Kirkland 8-12 6-6 22; D. Griswold 5-6 5-6 15; A. Sterrenberg 0-1 0-0 0; R. Dickerson 0-0 0-0 0; J. Zuppardo 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-54 31-38 76. WESTERN KENTUCKY 10-18 (6-9) -- K. McDonald 5-9 2-2 14; D. Gordon 4-8 8-10 16; G. Fant 8-9 3-3 19; T. Price 2-6 0-0 6; T. Akol 4-4 6-7 14; V. Zollo 2-4 0-0 6; J. Crook 1-4 2-2 4; N. Snipes 0-1 0-0 0; O. Akamune 0-0 0-0 0; K. Anyigbo 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 26-46 21-24 79.
Three-point goals: ARST 3-13 (T. Finn 2-5; E. Townsel 1-3; M. Hooten 0-5), WKU 6-17 (K. McDonald 2-6; D. Gordon 0-1; T. Price 2-6; N. Snipes 0-1; V. Zollo 2-3); Rebounds: ARST 35 (B. Peterson 13), WKU 16 (G. Fant 4); Assists: ARST 7 (T. Finn 3), WKU 17 (D. Gordon 6); Total Fouls -- ARST 16, WKU 23; Fouled Out: ARST-M. Kirkland; WKU-G. Fant.