‘Persistent’ Toppers beat Arkansas State in double overtime in Diddle

Junior forward George Fant dunks the basketball during the first half of the Toppers game against Arkansas State Saturday at Diddle Arena.

Tyler Lashbrook

For the second time in as many games Diddle Arena saw extra basketball for free, but this time it was a much happier ending for the 5,866 fans in attendance.

Battling cramps and fatigue, the Toppers (11-7, 3-2 Sun Belt Conference) fought for 50 minutes against Arkansas State, winning 82-77 in double-overtime, giving them a much needed win before traveling to Louisiana-Monroe next Thursday.

Junior guard T.J. Price said he thought it was a must win–the Toppers had lost their last three home games and their last two conference games. Coach Ray Harper said he doesn’t believe in must win games, instead calling WKU’s win over Arkansas State a “defining moment.”

“I’ll tell you the two things we’ll continue to do,” Harper said. “We’ll continue to grind and we’ll continue to work every day. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be, but we will never take short cuts.

“Was Thursday night’s loss tough? Absolutely. We may have another tough one before the season’s over, but I bet you we don’t quit. I bet you we keep fighting.”

Junior forward George Fant joined his teammate, T.J. Price, in the 1,000 point club as the 48th Topper to score 1,000 career points. Fant set the tone scoring a career-high 27 points on 11-of-18 shooting and 14 rebounds, seven on the offensive glass.

“I had two bad nights back-to-back the past two games,” Fant said, “and I didn’t get too panicky and I didn’t get too upset because I knew it was going to come back to me.”

“It’s a very exciting thing,” Fant said on scoring 1,000 career points. “I’m glad to join T.J. in the 1,000 point club. It’s a good feeling.”

He started the game hot, scoring 16 points in 17 minutes in the first half. He scored almost all of those points where he’s most comfortable: at the basket. His sheer size and strength was on full display as possession after possession, he punished Arkansas State opponents with a bruising back-to-the-basket game.

That style climaxed near the end of the first half when Fant rose and was at first glance stuffed by a Red Wolf, but Fant seemingly had an extra gear, pushing through the defender’s hand and finishing the basket off the glass.

Freshman guard Chris Harrison-Docks knocked down three straight triples on three consecutive possessions and Price hit one on the next, bringing the Diddle Arena crowd to its feet and giving WKU a 55-47 lead with just over nine minutes remaining.

Arkansas State clawed back, though, eventually tying the game at 64 with just over a minute left after Kendrick Washington finished an up-and-under move at the rim.  Neither team could convert on their final possessions, sending the game to its first overtime.

With a little over two minutes left in the first overtime, Price jumped to shoot and was hit hard, flailing to the ground with a leg cramp. The ball, however, fell straight into the basket, giving the Toppers a 70-68 advantage. Price was helped to his feet and hobbled back to the bench to the tone of the crowd booing the refs blended with chants of “T-J Price.”

Arkansas State was whistled for a backcourt violation, giving WKU 29.2 seconds with the score tied at 70, but Harrison-Docks’ long range attempt came up short, sending the game into its second overtime.

The Toppers jumped out to a five-point lead with a minute remaining in the second overtime when junior forward Aaron Adeoye’s mid-range jumper with the shot clock running out floated through the net. WKU never looked back from there, finishing off the Red Wolves, something they couldn’t do against Arkansas Little-Rock on Thursday.

ASU came into Friday night ranked 10th nationally in three-pointers made per game. Against WKU, and with an additional 10 minutes of overtime, the Red Wolves shot just 6-of-24 from behind the arc.

“That’s what we take pride in,” Price said. “Our offense is going to come to us no matter what, but our pride is in the defense and that’s what we work mainly on in practice every day.”

Harper credited his team’s attention to detail.

“We stuck to (the) scouting report tonight,” Harper said. He noted a point late in the game when ASU’s Rakeem Dickerson nailed a long range shot and his player’s asked whether or not they were still playing under the ball screen.

Dickerson is shooting just 25 percent on three-pointers for the year, so the team was right to still play under the screen, in order to keep tabs on Kirk Van Slyke, a 43 percent long range shooter.

“That’s how you win games like this,” Harper said. “You’ve got to pay attention to detail.

“This game could have gone either way and the persistence that these young men showed today, I think it tells a lot about them after a tough loss on Thursday. There’s a lot of teams that maybe couldn’t have bounced back like they did today.”