Cortney Basham and I both attended the Sun Belt title game in Hot Springs, rooting for our repsective teams, Western Kentucky and North Texas. We originally planned to each recap the game separately, as per usual 800GP procedure. But when we realized Cort had forgotten to "I Will"-list the game until it was too late, we realized this was an opportunity to do something unique: a joint recap, from the perspective of both the winning and losing sides, in the spirit of All of Us and Each of Us. Denver fan Brendan Loy offered his editing services, and threw in a bit of a Pioneer perspective as well. So although it's in my name and written in my voice, this is really a piece co-authored by three writers. We hope you enjoy it. Sun Belt Represent.
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At the heart of the 800 Games Project is an intriguing dichotomy between community and individualism. This crowd-sourced chronicle of the college basketball season is undoubtedly a group effort, as 121 different writers work toward a common goal, and see their contributions become part of a whole that's greater than its parts. Yet the actual mechanics of the 800GP process are, with the exception of a few meetups and tweetups, fairly individualistic. Each writer attends games, either alone or with friends or family, but not generally with other 800GP-ers. The writer then recaps the game from his or her individual perspective. This happens all over the country, all throughout the season. At times it involves long road trips or lonely walks to near-empty gyms. Only in the bigger picture does the community aspect of these isolated individual efforts become so apparent. Yet that community is at the core of what makes the 800GP so great.
This dualism was thrown into sharp belief during the Sun Belt Tournament, as three 800GP writers with double-digit numbers of recaps to their names - myself, Cortney Basham, and Brendan Loy - watched our respective teams compete for a conference championship. Each of us had plans to attend the championship game, if our teams made it. And there was something of an impulse to cheer for one another, #AOUEOU-style. But of course, only two of us, at most, could have the opportunity to attend the title game in Hot Springs. At the end of the day, there can only be one winner; for the rest, it must end in a loss.
Naturally, we were all intensely rooting for our own team to be the one that would not see its season end in a loss in Hot Springs. In my case, that team is North Texas, the school where I am currently a graduate student. I transferred to North Texas from the University of Missouri in 2007, as a sophomore. After completing my Bachelor's degree at UNT in 2010, I stayed to work on my Master's, a degree I will obtain later this spring. I've loved college basketball since I was very young, and I've long been a fan of mid-majors, and a faithful reader of TMM since its inception. Although I followed UNT basketball in a cursory fashion before I transferred to Denton, I didn't become passionate about the team and start attending games until I got here. Now, of course, I go to games regularly, and I consider myself extremely lucky that my time at UNT has coincided with one of the best periods in program history.
Cort's history goes a bit further back. He is a double graduate of WKU (1999 and 2001), and has taught at the university for 11 years as an instructor in interdisciplinary studies. He has worked with athletes a lot in the classroom, and very much enjoys it. A basketball junkie since he was a small child, Cort religiously followed the Kentucky Wildcats when he was young (as practically all rural Kentucky boys do) before laying that aside to become a full-fledged Hilltopper the minute he set foot on campus in 1996. Cort met his wife at WKU. They both work at WKU. They live two miles from WKU, in a small town that is largely driven by WKU. Their two small kids, aged 2 and 5 years old, know about Ed Diddle, the Red Towel, the words to the fight song, and love going to campus. In short, they are Hilltoppers to the bone.
Brendan's history with the Denver Pioneers spans only two seasons, and does not involve any actual academic connections. Brendan went to USC for undergrad and Notre Dame for law school, but despite those above-the-Red-Line ties, he is, like me, a long-time fan of mid-majors generally. In 2010, inspired by TMM and the "emotional investments" concept, Brendan decided to "adopt" the Denver Pioneers as "his" Other 24 team. The investment quickly hooked him, and at this point Denver has surpassed all other teams, including both alma maters and long-time favorite Gonzaga, in Brendan's basketball fandom.
All three of us had high hopes of watching something special at Summit Arena on March 6. But before we tell the rest of that story, a bit of background on the teams' seasons is in order.
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Those who have been reading Cort's recaps throughout the 800 Games Project know that he has described the WKU program as "not your run of the mill mid-major." That is not meant as a putdown of any of other schools. Perhaps even "run of the mill mid-major" is as mythical an animal as the Yeti. But, what he aims to convey with that description is that, having been around a lot of hoops and visited his share of mid-majordom, the "care level," passion, history, and tradition of WKU is pretty special. In fact, few schools in or out of mid-majordom can boast the kind of historical success WKU has had (eighth all-time in NCAA wins, 44 conference titles, 22 NCAA appearances, multiple Sweet 16s, a Final Four).
So, when the Toppers fired their coach midseason, the expected path figured to be the well-worn one at WKU: hire a hotshot Big 6 assistant who will get his sea legs in a couple of years, build an NCAA team, and move on to collect fat paychecks at SEC or Big Ten or other Big 6 school for a few years. Then, repeat the process again. This is where this formerly 5-14 team took a turn off the projected path into the wild woods of the Bluegrass. In Cort's previous recaps, he has also described interim head coach Ray Harper as "not your run of the mill interim coach." He is 50 years old, a western Kentucky native, and a long-time head coach boasting four national titles (two at the D-II level and two at the NAIA level). Most interims usher struggling teams to the end of the season and the slate gets wiped clean for the next hot assistant. Not this time.
Suffice it to say, former interim, now permanent, head coach Ray Harper worked some Big Red magic, and that "not run of the mill" played out in spades in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The whole country now knows the story, or soon will. The Tops, having endured a 1-8 stretch in the middle of the season resulting in that 5-14 record, have gone 10-4 since, including six straight, mainly by way of pesky perimeter defense (allowing just 27% from deep over the last 14 games) and drawing lots of fouls by relentlessly attacking the goal (+25 free throw makes over their opponents in the Sun Belt tourney).
Following North Texas has likewise been a roller-coaster ride. Recent Mean Green seasons have had a history of being erratic affairs, even as coach Johnny Jones racked up five consecutive 20-win seasons through 2010-11. In 2007, Jones' first trip to the NCAA Tournament, the Mean Green were just 7-7 in Sun Belt play before winning seven of eight to make the dance. In 2010, North Texas was 6-5 in conference before winning every game in February and early March to return to the NCAAs. Last season, an 11-2 non-conference season devolved into an 8-8 conference record before a run to the Sun Belt final resulted in last-second heartbreak at the hand of Arkansas-Little Rock.
Yet none of those seasons possibly compare to the ride of this season. After losing most of its production from the year prior, UNT had an almost completely new team led by freshmen and transfers. The first month of the season would be spent trying to win without the most talented newcomer of them all, Tony Mitchell, who became eligible on December 18. For a month after Mitchell joined the team, it looked like UNT had the talent to keep up with most any team, above or below the Red Line. The youngsters were still raw and dropped some conference games early, but you could see they were coming together and would probably threaten for the conference title in Hot Springs.
Then on January 17, the bombshell dropped. UNT's starting backcourt of freshmen Chris Jones and Jordan Williams were ruled ineligible for the remainder of the season. The loss of the two highly regarded recruits left the Mean Green left the team with just three scholarship guards.
The results from then until the end of the regular season were consistently inconsistent, with UNT alternating wins and losses - literally, they never had a 2-game winning or losing streak - all the way until the semifinals in Hot Springs. The one silver lining was that until the regular season finale at Denver, UNT did not lose by more than four in regulation in any game. Still, this did not seem like a team that would contend for a conference tournament title this year.
Denver, on the other hand, looked like a conference favorite after a stellar non-conference start, and despite losing a number of heartbreakers at the wire in league play, came to Hot Springs with a serious head of steam after a nationally televised home blowout of league-leading Middle Tennessee State in early February, and a four-game winning streak to end the regular season. The Pioneers earned the #3 seed in the tourney, and a bye into the quarterfinals. North Texas was the #5 seed, and also got a bye, thanks to Louisiana-Monroe's academic probation. Western Kentucky was the #7 seed, and would need to win four games in four days to capture the title.
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I attended North Texas's quarterfinal against #4 Louisiana-Lafayette. It was a grinding, thrilling affair, one of the more suspenseful games I've ever attended as a fan. Meanwhile, almost simultaneously to the dramatic finish of my game, #9 seed Arkansas State was in the process of shocking #1 seed Middle Tennessee. This gave all three of us - Brendan, Cort and me - hope that perhaps our team could be the one to take advantage of the suddenly blown-up SBC bracket. I returned to Denton on the student bus Sunday night, hoping to be on my way back 36 hours or so later.
Meanwhile, after Western Kentucky joined the upset party by beating #2 seed Arkansas-Little Rock on Sunday, Cort set about making travel plans of his own. While work and family obligations prevented a full five-day excursion to the Sun Belt tournament, he had vowed to make the drive if an NCAA bid was on the line. That had seemed improbable going into the tourney (KenPom suggested a 1.1% chance of the Toppers winning the whole deal), but the Robots do not know Ray Harper nor the not-quite-definable, but certainly real, Topper Spirit. Now, after two wins in two days, it was time to get serious about finding a travel partner. There were no takers in Cort's "inner circle" of friends (thanks to wives, jobs, kids, and the rest), so he made a call to a passionate Topper he knew mostly via the Hilltopper Haven message board. The friend was on the fence. So the semifinals opened with more than one type of suspense about what would happen the next day.
For my part, having returned from Sunday's game on the six-hour student bus back to Denton - with plans to get on the same bus Tuesday if UNT reached the title game - I settled in at home Monday evening, after cooking a quick dinner, to watch a few hours of Sun Belt basketball. The conference semifinals were being carried on Comcast Sports Southeast's Sun Belt Network package, which does not have a Dallas/Ft. Worth affiliate. The absence of the Sun Belt Network in a Sun Belt TV market meant I had to watch on my laptop on ESPN3. This was fine with me, as it meant my TV was free to roam between the automatic bid-deciding games during the timeouts.
I expected UNT's semifinal with Arkansas State to be an easier game than the contest against ULL 24 hours earlier, and I was barely right. The Mean Green led for most of the first half, but a run at the start of the second from the Red Wolves made it a nailbiter for the last 16 minutes of the game. There were quite a few nervy moments, especially as Mitchell had to sit for an extended time with four fouls, but the Mean Green hung tough until the star freshman could return. Once he was back in the game, UNT made big shots and big stops to win, 76-72.
When the victory was sealed, I knew I would be going back to Hot Springs the next day. If UNT was going to win its third Sun Belt crown in the last six seasons, I had to be there to experience it in person, even if it meant shorting myself on sleep ahead of Wednesday afternoon's Southland quarterfinals, which I had previously committed to recapping for the 800GP.
Many Mean Green diehards may have closed the browser window at the end of the first semifinal, but I stayed tuned to watch the second game between Denver and Western Kentucky. A lot of UNT fans I know were cheering on the Hilltoppers in the semi, as WKU was the lower seed and had an under .500 record. But I was rooting for the Pioneers, who had beaten UNT by 12 in the last game of the regular season. This was because Brendan, my Twitter buddy, DU blogger, TMM scholarship sponsor from last season and master of #PANIC, had a plane ticket the next morning to fly into Little Rock, and would drive to Hot Springs if Denver appeared in the final.
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Brendan was also watching the semis on ESPN3. He had left work at his law firm that afternoon not knowing whether he'd be back the next day or flying to Little Rock at 6:00 AM, and had put his daughters to bed not knowing if he'd next see them Tuesday morning or Wednesday evening. His bags were already partially packed, and he was ready to sprint toward an early-morning departure if DU won; only about six hours would remain between the closing buzzer and the time he'd need to leave for the airport the next morning, if Denver won the game. Rarely if ever, Brendan mused on Twitter and elsewhere, had he ever had so much personally riding on the outcome of a single game.
Brendan's wife Becky was hosting her monthly ladies' book club Monday night, pursuant to plans made months ago, so Brendan holed himself up in the bedroom with his laptop to cheer on the Pioneers. Frequent post-bedtime interruptions by his young daughters - two of whom had indulged Brendan in creating an adorable "I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN" audio clip before the game - made his game-watching a somewhat disjointed experience, inspiring him to tweet at one point, "Don't the 8-month-old & 2 1/2-year-old understand that Daddy's watching a very important basketball game & Mommy has book club? #no #dadlife"
The game was close, but Denver trailed for much of it, possibly due to Brendan's failure to wear his lucky TMM shirt (which had led DU to victory over South Alabama the previous night) in the first half - that was remedied just before the second half started - and his egregious failure to bring the Brotherz Ballz, DU Bally and Mile High Bally, upstairs to the Sun Belt mancave until roughly the 10-minute mark of the second half. Sure enough, as soon as Brendan retrieved the Ballz, who had been chillin' with the book-club ladies near the Giant Bracket on the living-room wall, and brought them upstairs to watch, the tide turned, and Denver went on a 5-0 run to tie the game. It was nip-and-tuck from that point forward.
In the closing seconds, with Denver down 2 but in possession of the ball with a chance to tie or win, Brendan placed his iPhone against his laptop and started recording, hoping to capture a video of an epic triumph that would send him to Arkansas the next day. Instead, he recorded a classic example of how "this game will hurt you" - an intimate look at the agony of defeat:
An hour or so later, Brendan cancelled his airline, hotel and car rental reservations. The trip to Arkansas was off.
But what Our Game taketh away from one, Our Game giveth to another. While Brendan was experiencing the agony of defeat, Cort was basking in the thrill of victory - and of last-minute travel plans. That friend from the Hilltopper Haven boards, the one who had been on the fence, made up his mind moments after Brian Stafford's #superhoop attempt missed. As soon as the score against Denver went final, a Facebook message popped up on Cort's computer: "Call me. Right now." Jackpot.
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Cort and his friend departed Bowling Green, Kentucky at 8:00 am Tuesday--Cort with a stack of papers to grade (this being WKU's spring break), his friend with a list of phone calls to make for his job with the state of Kentucky. The 7.5-hour drive was uneventful, if you can call wonderful conversation ranging from modes of the Eucharist to parenting to Kentucky high school basketball "uneventful."
The trek from Bowling Green to Hot Springs requires navigation of Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee, but outside of those two skylines, it consists mostly of places like Rockfield (Kentucky), Bucksnort (Tennessee), and Lonoke (Arkansas). In other words, these are places which Bremen, Kentucky native Ray Harper - as well as Cort, as a native of Hudson, Kentucky - knows as "home." It contains forests, fields, tobacco, cotton, Cracker Barrels, local sports, and local barber shops if you feel up to driving into the nearest tiny town on Saturday mornings.
Meanwhile, back in Denton, I got up and prepared to board the student bus to Hot Springs. However, unlike 48 hours prior, students could not reserve their place on the bus with an email; it was first come, first served. On my way to campus, my friend Dennis frantically texted me to say that the bus--scheduled to leave at 11:00 am--was filling up, with the 10 o'clock hour not yet half-over. At around 10:30, I was able to claim one of the last seats on the bus. As you would expect, the second time making a trip in three days made it much more routine. As we exited I-30 to take the hilly road into Hot Springs, I began to feel my feet tapping in nervous energy an hour before tip time.
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Cort was feeling the nerves, too. Upon arrival in Hot Springs, he and his friend had enough time to take a short walk around town and see some of the old bathhouses. But this mainly served to burn off nervous energy and car fatigue, and the WKU duo arrived at Summit Arena about a half hour before the tip.
As they walked into the arena, two locals working for a food service provider for the Sun Belt tourney kindly handed them two free tickets. "I've got five, only need two," they said. Bonus. Once inside, they quickly settled into mid-court seats six rows from the floor.
Dennis and I entered Summit Arena at just about the same time, 30 minutes before tip, free student tickets in hand. Most of the students decided to sit (or rather stand; there was no sitting all game long) behind the basket on UNT's bench side. Dennis, a few other students and I decided to park ourselves to the majority's right. I was on the second row, no more than 10 feet from the baseline and 20 feet from the end of UNT's bench.
Before the game, Gumby, the green men and Dennis showed off their school spirit. And we had #swag.
I could go on and on about how much respect I have for the Western Kentucky program and its traditions. While everyone loves Big Red, my favorite is the waving of the red towel. When pre-game intros were about to begin, Camilla, the olive-skinned girl sitting to my right, inquired about why so many red towels were being waved. I proceeded to talk about how legendary WKU coach Diddle started the tradition in response to the theft of towels from the PE department and always carried one with him during games. She nodded and gave me a look that said, "How do you know all this crap?"
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The game had a great rhythm at the start, and was tight as I expected it would be. Casual North Texas fans probably looked at WKU's record and assumed the Mean Green would win, but the Hilltoppers looked like one of the top two or three teams in the conference in the final weeks of the regular season. Teeng Akol stood out for the 'Tops in the first half, and kept hitting short-to-mid-range jumpers. I remembered Akol being a complete non-factor in the game between the two teams in Denton. Of course, that was a completely different WKU team, one I wrote an obituary for in January saying, "Suffice it to say, 2011-12 will not go down as one of WKU's proudest seasons."
Something weird was happening throughout the first half and into the second: I wasn't feeling nervous. Whereas I was jumbled wreck on Sunday against ULL and two years ago in the final against Troy, I was feeling pretty confident this time.
The teams stayed close until around the 15-minute mark, when UNT went on an incredible run to post 11 straight points in two minutes. When Tyler Hall scored to put the Mean Green up by 13, our section was floating on air. After the exuberance died down, Dennis turned to me and said, "I'm feeling pretty good about this, man!!!" Even though I was still thrilled, I responded, "There's a lot of time left on that clock."
For Cort, this was an "I Believe" moment. It was the moment where people who do not follow the Sun Belt may have changed the channel. But Cort and the WKU faithful knew better, and their faith was rewarded. Ray Harper called a timeout, and the Tops quickly rang up nine straight, the first seven of those via Sun Belt Tourney MVP (and true freshman forward) George Fant.
Even when UNT was up 13, I knew there would be a Western Kentucky run in the near future. I also knew Fant, who was fantastic against Denver, would be a factor. I just didn't count on the run, and on Fant's explosion, being so immediate. Suddenly we had a ballgame.
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Back in Denver, Brendan was driving home from a work day he had hoped never to have, listening to the game on #midsradio via Tune In Radio on iPhone, still feeling a little melancholy about Denver's loss to WKU the previous night, and his not being in Hot Springs. Brendan was also thinking about both Cort and Ross. That's another funny effect of the 800GP, and the whole Mid-Majority community: it makes you care more about games and teams you otherwise have no connection to, because you know and like someone who does.
In this case, with no offense intended to Cort, Brendan was rooting for UNT for the sake of his former sponsoree, Ross, and hoping Ross wouldn't suffer another crushing #ThisGameWillHurtYou defeat, like UALR's Solomon Bozeman had inflicted the year before. But of course, none of us can control the basketball fates, try as we might to forestall the inevitable end in a loss, for our team or for another's.
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From WKU's 9-0 rally on, the game was the epitome of "tournament paced" basketball, as two teams who have no problem running up and down the court under normal circumstances mutually ground the game to a deliberate slugfest.
Still, UNT kept hold of a lead for most of the next seven minutes. Mitchell played better offensively than his two previous SBC tourney games, and his short jumper with the shot clock running down made it 66-61 with 4:24 to play. WKU came back again, and Fant's bank shot with 2:36 gave the 'Tops a 67-66 lead with 2:45 to go, their first since the beginning of the half. Fant's last points of the night set up a wild last few moments. Alzee Williams made two foul shots with about 90 seconds left, to give UNT the lead again. Obviously, in these final possessions, the nerves came back.
A scramble for a loose ball resulted #superhoop by Kahlil McDonald, and gave the Hilltoppers another lead with 1:10 left, 72-70. McDonald is the only senior on a team that is just as young as UNT. An empty possession from each team, including a thrown away fast break opportunity for WKU, gave UNT the chance to tie or take the lead with the shot clock off.
Alzee Williams came up the floor, passed to Brandan Walton who dribbled to his left to get to the top of the key. Walton stepped a little more to the left, stepped back, and shot a three-pointer with 14 seconds left and Derrick Gordon all over him. It was hurried and well short. The Tops' still had to make their free throws, or so we thought. TJ Price missed the front end of a one-and-one. O'karo Akamune jumped in front of Mitchell on the left block. Mitchell looked to be completely unaware that Price was shooting a one-and-one. Akamune put back the miss.
Two-possession game. Eight seconds left.
For Cort, that play represented the moment of "it's gonna happen!" Akamune slipping around All-Cosmos star Mitchell for that critical put-back of a missed free throw epitomized this team over the last dozen games or so: a wiry, inexperienced guy beating a superior player to the ball and capitalizing on it.
UNT's Walton was somehow fouled on a #superhoop attempt with four seconds remaining. He made the first two, and intentionally missed the third after a timeout. I thought it was the right call because fouling after a make usually takes a second or so, and three seconds is a very short period to score in the college game to get any type of good look. UNT didn't get the offensive rebound, and McDonald made his free throws to deliver a four-point win for WKU.
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For the second straight year, North Texas saw another team celebrate an NCAA Tournament bid on the Summit Arena floor as confetti rained down.
But this year just felt...different. Last year was truly the saddest I have ever felt after a basketball game, what with a litany of seniors who had accomplished so much for the program losing in their final game. This year, I felt a little numb watching WKU celebrate, but that feeling quickly turned to optimism about next year. Jones, Jordan Williams, Alzee Williams, Walton, Roger Franklin and Jacob Holmen are all key contributors who should be back. The biggest question mark at this stage is whether or not Mitchell will stay or go pro, but some inside the program say he is leaning towards a return. If he does, UNT would presumably be favored to stand under the confetti once again in Hot Springs.
This game will hurt you, and it does end in a loss, but it can also give you great hope for what lies ahead.
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Cort, of course, was experiencing the opposite range of emotions, as WKU held on to complete the most unlikely tournament run he has witnessed in his fifteen years of fandom.
All he could do was put his hands on his head and laugh. Others nearby whooped and hollered and high-fived and waved their red towels with wild abandon. Some pointed to the heavens. Many captured the moment with an Apple device. The players dog-piled at midcourt. An obscene amount of confetti blew all over the joint.
But for Cort, the defining image in those golden moments after the final horn was a middle-aged man who sat down in his nearby chair and openly wept without shame. A blubbering, hot mess, he and Cort looked at each other, Cort laughing audibly and he weeping freely, and shared that moment knowing that, countenances to the contrary, they felt exactly the same emotion.
That is not your average, run of the mill experience.
WESTERN KENTUCKY 74, NORTH TEXAS 70 03/06/2012
WESTERN KENTUCKY 15-18 (7-9) -- D. Gordon 3-9 1-2 8; T. Akol 9-11 5-6 23; G. Fant 6-10 5-5 17; T. Price 2-7 0-1 6; J. Crook 2-8 0-0 4; K. McDonald 2-9 8-8 14; O. Akamune 1-1 0-0 2; V. Zollo 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 25-57 19-22 74. NORTH TEXAS 18-14 (9-7) -- A. Williams 6-11 4-6 16; T. Mitchell 7-13 3-3 18; B. Walton 5-9 2-3 14; J. Holmen 4-15 2-2 11; K. Hogans 0-1 0-0 0; R. Franklin 3-7 0-0 6; T. Hall 2-3 0-0 5; T. Norris 0-1 0-0 0; N. Stojiljkovic 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 27-61 11-14 70.
Three-point goals: WKU 5-15 (T. Akol 0-1; J. Crook 0-1; K. McDonald 2-6; D. Gordon 1-3; T. Price 2-3; V. Zollo 0-1), NTEX 5-13 (J. Holmen 1-3; T. Hall 1-2; T. Mitchell 1-3; T. Norris 0-1; B. Walton 2-4); Rebounds: WKU 34 (G. Fant 6), NTEX 30 (K. Hogans 6); Assists: WKU 9 (J. Crook 2), NTEX 15 (A. Williams 3); Total Fouls -- WKU 13, NTEX 19; Fouled Out: WKU-None; NTEX-None.