No luck in NOLA: Toppers’ season ends in Sun Belt semifinals

WKU’s redshirt senior Caden Dickerson reacts after what will likely be his last game as a Hilltopper, a 73-72 loss to the University of Louisiana Lafayette in the semifinal round of the Sun Belt Tournament Saturday, March 15, 2014, at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, La. (Mike Clark/HERALD)

Tyler Lashbrook

T.J. Price looked up at the clock and began running down the court with nine seconds left in the game. He had just kept the ball inbounds off Louisiana-Lafayette’s Elfrid Payton air-balled a fall away jumper.

WKU had seen this situation before – down by one score with just seconds standing between survival and going home. Coach Ray Harper had one timeout left in his back pocket, but chose to let his team play out the scenario on its own.

Price dribbled up the right side, guarded directly by Payton, the long-armed Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year.

He hesitated at midcourt before he saw coach Ray Harper and assistant David Boyden pointing down the sideline, coaching him to drive the ball. He crossed the three-point line and began to turn the corner, but couldn’t get all the way to the rim.

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

Price rose through the Payton’s limbs, but the ball sailed slightly over the rim, right as the buzzer sounded.

“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.”

Harper and the Toppers got the shot they wanted from the guy they wanted taking it, but sometimes the proverbial cards don’t fall in your favor.

“I feel like you’ve got the ball in the guy’s hands where you want it,” Harper said. “If we’d have called a timeout we’d have probably tried to put the ball in T.J.’s hands, or George (Fant’s hands).

“If he could’ve turned it about another half-step, he had probably a bucket,” Harper said.

But he couldn’t turn the corner against the Sun Belt’s Defensive Player of the Year and the Toppers came up just one-point short of moving on to the Sun Belt championship.

WKU officially ended the season 20-12, a record better than its last two campaigns.

In the last two seasons, however, the Toppers won four games in four days in the Sun Belt tournament, earning back-to-back improbable NCAA Tournament bids.

This season, they were tasked with winning just two games in order to earn that automatic bid.

Junior forward George Fant has played in the Big Dance in each of his prior seasons; he said losing in the Sun Belt is a feeling that he isn’t “really used to.”

“It definitely does hurt,” Fant said, “but I’m proud of my team, proud of my coaches, proud of the players. It just didn’t go right for us.”

Next season Fant and Price will both be seniors.

Aaron Adeoye, Trency Jackson and Kevin Kaspar will join Fant and Price in a loaded and experienced senior class.

There will be a lot of support from the underclassmen too: Chris Harrison-Docks took the reigns as the team’s starting point guard and will be just a sophomore next season and junior Alex Rostov, provided full health, will return.

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