Former Toppers star for semi-pro Hornets

Former WKU players Kahlil McDonald, Jamal Crook and Teeng Akol celebrate a win against the Dayton Air Strikers.

Brad Stephens

RUSSELLVILLE — Khalil McDonald walked out of the locker room Friday at Jim Young Gymnasium to a chorus of screams.

Nearly 20 minutes before, his Bowling Green Hornets had finished off a 118-98 win over the Dayton Air Strikers in the Hornets’ inaugural game in the semi-pro Central Basketball League.

Now McDonald, a key part of WKU’s 2012 NCAA Tournament run, was greeted by a pack of elementary and middle school-aged boys and girls.

He and his teammates stayed an extra 10 minutes after the game, signing free Bowling Green Hornets towels and backpacks for the kids in attendance at Russellville High School.

“It’s real nice,” McDonald said of the reception. “It’s a pleasure being out here playing for the kids and just people, period. I just like to entertain.”

McDonald, former Toppers Teeng Akol and Jamal Crook, and the rest of the Hornets did just that Friday night, out-scoring Dayton 71-56 in the second half en route to the 20-point win.

McDonald tallied 22 points and six assists, the second-highest total on the team in both categories. Twelve of those points came on 3-pointers. Another two came on a thunderous dunk to finish off a lob from Crook.

On that play, McDonald drove down the court in a two-on-one fastbreak and made a nifty feed to Crook in the lane. Crook faked the defender like he was going for a layup, then threw the ball toward the rim, where McDonald slammed it home, much to the delight of the estimated 400 fans in attendance.

The assist was one of a team-high seven for Crook, WKU’s starting point guard for much of the last four years.

“He set that up perfectly, too,” Crook said of McDonald’s big slam. “I didn’t know if he was going to pass it to me or not but when we were on the break he gave it up so I was like, ‘Yeah, I got it.’

“We’d been talking about this for the longest. Finally the opportunity came.”

Crook finished the night with 18 points, those seven assists and five rebounds. Akol, a 6-foot-11-inch center who parted ways with WKU’s team in February, had 11 points and seven rebounds while fighting through foul trouble.

Crook said the game “brought back memories” for a trio — he, Akol and McDonald — that hadn’t played an official game together at any level since a second round loss to Kentucky in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.

Those three combined with former Georgetown College player Vic Moses, former Russellville High School star Tony Key and others in what was a successful debut for the area’s representative in the five-team CBL.

McDonald and Akol had been in communication with the team as it was being out together, Crook said. McDonald then recruited Crook to come join the Hornets.

Having Akol, Crook and McDonald to boost the Hornets’ name recognition and talent level was a big benefit, said team owner Waseem Moorad of Springfield, Va.

But Moorad added the Hornets’ goal wasn’t just to accumulate local players, but to collect and then send them on to bigger pro careers.

“I told them all, we want to get you (on pro teams) overseas,” Moorad said. “If we’re a medium for you to get known, then great. We want to be a stepping stone for players to go overseas.”

The chance to get some recent game tape to show to foreign teams was an incentive to play for the Hornets, McDonald said.

McDonald said he had offers from some teams overseas after his senior year, but that a lack of a passport kept him from taking advantage of those chances. He said he has a passport now and is looking to use this team as a springboard to a longer pro career abroad.

“I think we’re more talented than a semi-pro team usually is, really,” McDonald said. “I think a lot of guys can go to a higher level. We’re using this as another step.”

And though the team is labeled the Bowling Green Hornets, that step is being taken not in Bowling Green, but in Russellville.

Russellville, a town 30 miles to the west of Bowling Green, has nearly 10 times less people than Bowling Green, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.

Some fans who wanted to see the former Toppers play but were unfamiliar with the area had trouble finding where the high school was — notably current WKU guard Brandon Harris.

Harris and fellow Topper Chris Harrison-Docks spent about an hour looking for the arena, Harris said, with his GPS taking him to Logan County High School, Russellville’s off-campus football stadium and a middle school before he finally found the right location.

But Moorad said the partnership with the city and high school was a beneficial one for both parties. The Hornets donated new shot clocks and jerseys for Russellville’s boys and girls basketball teams, and Moorad has said he’d like to start some sort of scholarship fund at RHS. Meanwhile Russellville has given the Hornets a community from which they can draw fan support.

Fans have five more chances between now and June 22 to watch the team at home, starting with a 7 p.m. meeting this Friday night against the St. Louis Hawks.

Jim Young Gymnasium, with a listed capacity of 2,500, is a far cry from Diddle Arena or the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., where Crook finished his WKU career last month at the NCAA Tournament.

But for Akol, Crook and McDonald, the Hornets are an ideal avenue to starting a pro basketball career.

“I definitely missed the game,” Crook said. “It’s always good to come out and get some games under your belt to get ready for whatever opportunity you have coming up.”