Toppers clinch No. 2 seed in Sun Belt, knocking off Louisiana-Lafayette 75-72

WKU’s junior guard T.J. Price (52) gets around forward Shawn Long (21) and guard Kevin Brown (31) to shoot a layup during the first half of the Topper’s game against the University of Louisiana Lafayette Thursday, March 6, 2014 at Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Ky. The Toppers lead 37-34 at the half. (Mike Clark/HERALD)

Tyler Lashbrook

It took a total team effort, but WKU knocked off Louisiana-Lafayette 75-72 Thursday night thanks to contributions from everyone on the floor.

With the win, the Toppers (20-10, 12-5 Sun Belt Conference) locked up the No. 2 seed in the Sun Belt Tournament in New Orleans, La. and will play their first game in the semifinals March 15.

“Two games is very manageable for this group,” coach Ray Harper said.

WKU had to win four games in four nights in order to win the past two Sun Belt championships.

This year, it has a double-bye and will only have to play two games to defend the crown.

“It’s hard to play four games straight and give it your all,” senior forward O’Karo Akamune said. “It had its toll on our body and having the rest will definitely help us out this team.”

Seven NBA scouts and two NBA general managers, who attended the game to watch ULL’s Elfrid Payton, a projected NBA point guard.

Payton finished the night with 31 points and grabbed 13 rebounds and kept the Ragin’ Cajuns in the game late with bucket after bucket.

“They would never quit,” Harper said. “I thought it was a high-level game; there were a lot of NBA people in the arena tonight for a reason.”

 “He’s the real deal. I thought we battled him.”

The Toppers battled him until the very end of the game. Payton’s last shot, a fall-away game tying three-pointer, fell short as he was hounded by WKU guards.

Junior forward George Fant battled for the Toppers; he finished with 18 points and nine rebounds and answered the challenge of defending ULL’s Shawn Long, universally recognized as one of the top big men in the Sun Belt.

“I’ve been hearing and I’ve been seeing a lot about him,” Fant said. “He’s been killing it. You know, just watched a lot of film and I noticed a few things that I keyed in on.

“I knew I had to get real physical.”

The first half was a physical back-and-forth affair, with the lead exchanging seven different times.

The Toppers took their first lead of the game, 20-18, after Price finished a hop step layup in transition.

The Ragin’ Cajuns retook command minutes later after Payton finished a one-handed tip in; he was fouled in the process, but missed the freebie.

With a little over 10 seconds remaining and the score tied up, the Toppers rushed the ball up the floor and kicked it to the corner freshman guard Chris Harrison-Docks, who promptly knocked down a three ball as the buzzer expired, giving WKU a 37-34 halftime lead.

WKU controlled through the 10-minute mark of the second half and extended the lead to eight points on an important Harrison-Docks stretch.

Harrison-Docks hit a pull up jumper, threaded the needle in transition to a streaking Price and hit a pair of free throws on three straight possessions.

The Ragin’ Cajuns, however, didn’t falter.

They pressed the Toppers full court late in the game and cut the lead to one-point with a minute left after Payton sliced through WKU’s defense and finished in traffic.

But the Toppers sunk free throws down the stretch and sealed the victory in its last home game of the season.

Harrison-Docks hit 6-of-6 from the line in the final 1:12.

Before tournament time, the Toppers will have to travel to Atlanta to play first place and regular season champions, Georgia State.

Coach Harper said he’ll take a look at some different guys and give some guys a chance to rest, but the plan is to win, regardless of the locked-in tournament standings.

Fant said he plans to win.

“They came down here and murdered us,” he said. “We want to go and return the favor.”​