Toppers’ end season with tournament loss to ULL

WKU junior guard T.J. Price drives the ball pass ULL junior guard Kevin Brown during the 2014 Men’s Sun Belt Tournament semifinal round at the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, La. on Saturday Mar. 15, 2014. (Jeff Brown/HERALD)

Tyler Lashbrook

For the first time since 2011, the Toppers will not have an invitation to the Big Dance.

They had defeated Louisiana-Lafayette twice in the regular season, but couldn’t close out the three-peat as the Ragin’ Cajuns advanced to the finals by a score of 73-72 in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament semifinals.

The entire game came down to a last shot, but WKU couldn’t convert it, as junior guard T.J. Price’s dribbled right at ULL junior guard Elfrid Payton, but couldn’t get a clean look against the long arms of the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year.

“I did my best to keep my hands straight up,” Payton said.

 Later in the postgame press conference, he elaborated on the final play.

 “We do a lot of drills like that, trying to cut off the baseline and I tried my hardest to cut off the baseline,” Payton said. “I didn’t actually get there but he pulled up and like I said early I just tried to keep my hands straight up and make it as tough a shot as possible.”

Payton finished with 23 points, nine assists and seven rebounds on 11-of-15 shooting. 

On that final possession, WKU had a timeout left, but coach Ray Harper opted to let his team play out the game.

Price grabbed a rebound and paced up court. Harper said that if he called a timeout, the ball would have gone to Price or junior forward George Fant’s hands anyways.

“I thought he had the opportunity to drive it,” Harper said. “I didn’t think anyone was ahead of Payton, and with his strength and his ability to drive it we had a great opportunity to get an easy one.”

Price and Fant led WKU with 16 points apiece and each guy made big basket after big basket late to keep the Toppers afloat.

Louisiana-Lafayette controlled most of the first half, taking an 11-point lead on two separate occasions near the end of the period.

Ragin’ Cajun senior guard Bryant Mbamalu and Payton led the way. Mbamalu finished the half with 18 points, 16 of those coming in the game’s first 10 minutes, and Payton added 15 points, five rebounds and six assists.

At one point, the duo had outscored the Toppers, 29-28, by themselves.

WKU switched to a full court press and made its move at the minute-and-a-half mark — Price completed an and-one, senior guard Brandon Harris drilled a pair of free throws and Price netted a layup through traffic on consecutive possessions.

But Payton answered with a fast break layup, bringing the score to 42-37. WKU turned the ball over on the next possession with only seconds remaining, effectively ending the first half.

The Toppers regained the lead 49-48 on a Price layup but ULL eventually stretched the lead back out, taking an 11-point advantage. But in vintage WKU fashion, the Toppers stormed back and regained the lead, 70-69, after freshman guard Chris Harrison-Docks knocked in a long range bucket, his third of the game.

Junior guard Trency Jackson and Fant each split a pair of free throws and ULL’s Payton answered with two buckets at the rim. WKU could not convert on the offensive end after that. 

Louisiana-Lafayette coach Bob Marlin said that his team had an advantage in playing the night before.

“We played with a lot of momentum,” Marlin said. “Western hadn’t played a game in a week and a half. They didn’t play Price and Fant in the last game. They just kind of punted.” 

There were very few words spoken in WKU’s postgame conference, but Fant made sure to say that he’s proud of his teammates and coaches — and they’ll all be ready this time next season.

“We’ve got to remember this feeling and get ready for next year,” he said.​