Aulbach: Toppers feed off electric crowd at Diddle Arena

Freshman point guard Brandon Harris falls backwards onto junior forward George Fant during the game against Ole Miss at Diddle Arena on Dec. 30. Fant recovered 14 total rebounds throughout the course of the game.

Lucas Aulbach

They might have come away with a loss, but the Toppers are going to miss games like tonight’s once their Sun Belt Conference schedule kicks off.

Monday night’s game against Ole Miss at Diddle Arena felt like a rivalry game – students, alumni, and just plain fans alike filled the house to watch WKU (8-5) give the Rebels a run for their money. The only time there was an empty seat in the house is when the crowd got on its feet to cheer.

I’ve been to a lot of Topper basketball games over the past four years against all types of competition, from old-school rivals like Middle Tennessee and Murray State to less-hyped squads such as Brescia and Campbellsville. Monday night was the best crowd I’ve seen at Diddle Arena since I moved to Bowling Green.

It wasn’t just the best – it was also the biggest. The announced attendance came to 7,523, the largest crowd since 2008 and third-largest since Diddle underwent renovations during the 2002-03 season.

Athletics Director Todd Stewart called the atmosphere electric. Junior guard T.J. Price (who led all scorers with 26 points) said he loved it. And coach Ray Harper said it was the kind of crowd that can make Diddle Arena one of the toughest venues in the country to visit.

“That’s what WKU basketball is about,” Harper said after the game. “If we can continue to get crowds like that, it’ll make this a very difficult place to play in the future and I think it’ll help us put even better players in the uniform.”

Now, not every game is as big as Monday night. SEC teams don’t come to Diddle every day – the only reason the Rebels came to town was because Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork used to hold the same position at WKU  – and it’ll be a while before we see a player as polarizing and energetic as Rebel guard Marshall Henderson take the court again.

But this was a game where a blowout loss wouldn’t have surprised most people. Ole Miss (9-3) boasts one of the best records in the SEC, won an NCAA Tournament game last year, and should be a power as most teams begin their conference schedules. The fact that WKU could come away with just a five-point loss says a lot about where this team stands and how a big crowd can help put a little extra energy in the Toppers.

For a fan base that doesn’t always show up when class is out of session, WKU fans made December feel like March Madness on Monday night. More crowds like that could help the Toppers become a force to be reckoned with once March rolls around.