Aulbach: Toppers can rest easy — and longer — with win

WKU’s senior guard O’Karo Akamune (15) gets surrounded by center Vieux Kande (33) and guard Hayward Register (23) 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)

Lucas Aulbach

The Toppers won’t have to win four games in four days again next week in order to clinch a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Thursday’s home win over Louisiana-Lafayette wasn’t always pretty and it was close all night — the Toppers’ biggest lead was just eight points late in the second half — but with the end of the regular season a few days away, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. The Toppers locked up a two-seed and double-bye in next week’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament, meaning they’ll have to win just two games to advance to the big tournament later this month.

Junior forward George Fant breathed a sigh of relief in the Paul Just Media Center after the game when he was asked about having a week off — he’s done the whole “four games in four days” thing twice in his time at WKU — but coach Ray Harper was a little less excited.

While it’s fewer games, the competition in those games will be higher. Harper said with starting center Aleksej Rostov and back-up point guard Kevin Kaspar out with separate injuries, the biggest benefit is the extra time off the injury-ravaged Toppers will have.

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

Thursday was close, but these two teams are pretty even in terms of talent.

WKU and ULL sit at No. 2 and No. 3 in the Sun Belt standings, respectively. The Toppers boast the second-best defense in the league, while the Ragin’ Cajuns, led by dynamic point guard Elfrid Payton, have the top scoring offense. Thursday night, the game lived up to they hype behind those numbers.

Payton put on an absolute show in Diddle Arena, finishing with 31 points and 13 rebounds in 40 minutes of action. He was the reason nine NBA scouts — including Sam Presti, general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Rich Cho, general manager of the Charlotte Bobcats — were courtside. Harper referred to him as “the real deal” after the game.

But Payton wasn’t enough alone. ULL forward Shawn Long, the top rebounder and No. 2 scorer in the Sun Belt, finished with just five points to go with his ten rebounds, and only one other Ragin’ Cajun player scored in double figures. The lockdown WKU defense won the battle Thursday night.

That strong defense starts with a foundation of seniors. On a night where the three Topper seniors played in Diddle Arena for the final time, forward O’Karo Akamune and guards Caden Dickerson and Brandon Harris delivered.

Akamune was a big reason Long stayed in foul trouble and couldn’t score for much of the night, Harris stayed on the Ragin’ Cajun guards, and Harper said Dickerson was a big reason why ULL guard Bryant Mbamalu, who scored 32 points in a game against South Alabama this weekend, was held to 1-of-8 shooting Thursday.

The Toppers have one more game before their tournament start next weekend, on the road this Saturday against Sun Belt leader Georgia State.

Nothing is on the line. The Toppers will be the No. 2 seed next Saturday even if they win by 100 in Atlanta. And while Harper said he plans to rest guys who need it and experiment with different line-ups, he said WKU will play to win.

Fant said the same thing — he remembers Georgia State’s 23-point win in Diddle Arena in January.

“I know all the guys remember that they came down here and murdered us, so I’m sure everybody else has the same mindset as me — that we want to go and return the favor,” he said.