Pratt: Harper has good reason to be happy with the Hilltoppers

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers head coach Ray Harper speaks to the crowd after the last home game of the regular season against Louisiana-Lafayette in Bowling Green, Ky. on Thursday, March 06, 2014. (Jabin Botsford/HERALD)

Elliott Pratt

The clock had only read zero for just a moment before a microphone was in Ray Harpers’ hands.

He was getting ready to do something he hadn’t had the privilege and/or the confidence in doing before at the end of a regular season.

It’s hard to find the coach smiling or cracking wise after a tight game, no matter if the result was a win for Western Kentucky.

But a red blazer sporting Harper was all smiles when he addressed the crowd in Diddle Arena to “come join us in NAWLINS, we’re gonna have some fun. Let’s do this.”

It was dear old Western’s day Thursday night, and Harper had every reason to live in the moment on senior night.

Harper has every reason to smile and be encouraged because of his teams’ next-man-up mentality that has brought them to this point.

He’s taking a team into an automatic semifinal game in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in New Orleans, La. next week that lost two of its key components.

“We never talked about Alex Rostov, that we lost our starting center about four weeks ago,” Harper said. “We never talked about that we lost Kevin Kaspar, our backup point guard, who was playing terrific.

“I don’t know that there are a lot of teams in this league that could have overcome that, I really don’t. If you take out the starting center and the backup point guard on a lot of teams in this league they would have struggled.”

The Toppers ability to show strength through depth this season covered the fact that they did lose Rostov and Kaspar. 

Kaspar played 16 games and averaged three points per game during that time, which including 34 percent clip from long range.

Rostov played in 20 games and averaged four points per game and blocked seven shots in those games.

For a 6-foot-10-inch center, Rostov showed us all this year his ability had improved as a shooter. It was nothing for him to step back and drain a three-pointer, and he showed with a 29 percent shooting average.

Harper continually expressed throughout the year that he was upset at losing Kaspar and Rostov. Before the Louisiana-Lafayette game, he expressed how much the team missed his presence

“Kevin Kaspar’s the one that really hurt us when we lost him because he was the one playing terrific. Him and Chris were a great combination there.”

Exactly – Kaspar and Chris were a great combination, but that didn’t mean one couldn’t do it without the other.

When Rostov went down, in stepped O’Karo Akamune to substitute as a big man and hasn’t disappointed. In his last game in Diddle Arena Akamune scored 10 points and grabbed six boards.

For Akamune, to be a part of this years team with what they’ve accomplished brought the emotions out.

“It meant a lot,” Akamune said. “I’m not an emotional person, but I kind of got emotional on the court and off the court watching my teammates playing. I’m just appreciative.”

What Harper can be appreciative of is what his team has done on the court this year.

The Toppers won 20 games in the regular season for the first time since 2008-09 and boast a 12-5 record in the conference, the best since 2009-10.

So it just doesn’t seem right that WKU will enter the tournament knowing that they don’t have to play four games in four days to win the thing.

But there’s still one game to be played in the regular season, and it’s the first time in a while that the Toppers will end it in a game that means absolutely nothing.

Both Georgia State and WKU already have the top two seeds locked up and will rest several starters that need it.

It’s going to be nice for Harper to see what guys like Ben Lawson, Nigel Snipes and Daouda Soumaoro can do with some extra minutes against the Panthers.

It’s a luxury for Harper to have that opportunity to experiment different looks he may use come tournament time, but it’s a luxury this team has earned.

The fact that WKU can rest some guys and evaluate the ones who could provide significant minutes in the tournament should give Harper plenty of excitement to have some fun in Nawlins.

“I guess I thought with this team two games would be important, rather than three or four games in three or four days,” Harper said. “Two games is very manageable for this group.”