Back on Top: Toppers earn NCAA Tournament berth after winning Sun Belt Conference Tournament

Lucas Aulbach

All season, Ray Harper warned people that once the Toppers got healthy, they would be a tough out in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

As it turns out, he was right. WKU won four games in four days to win its second consecutive Sun Belt crown and second under coach Harper.

The Toppers aren’t finished yet, though — the conference title win earned them a berth in the NCAA Tournament. No. 16 seed WKU will face No. 1 seed Kansas in the first round Friday in Kansas City, with the winner of that facing the winner between North Carolina and Villanova.

Junior guard Brandon Harris said WKU is ready to move on to the big dance.

“The job ain’t over yet. We’ve still got to go to the NCAA Tournament and try to penetrate there,” Harris said. “This was like the semi-formal, now we’re on our way to the prom, baby. Now, we’re on our way to the prom.”

The future didn’t always seem so bright for the Toppers.

As recent as Feb. 20, WKU (20-15) sat at 13-14 with four regular-season games to go.

It was less than a month ago, but that seems like years ago now. The Toppers proceeded to go 3-1 in their last four games before running the table in the conference tournament.

Harper said the way his team played through the hard times — which were brought on by injuries to senior guard Jamal Crook, junior guard Caden Dickerson, sophomore guard T.J. Price and sophomore guard Kevin Kaspar — helped WKU during its tournament run.

“We had some guys playing major minutes that we had not planned on playing major minutes,” he said. “The one thing they did was they continued to listen, they continued to allow us to coach them, and once we got guys back, everyone thought, ‘Well, they’re going to be fine,’ but it’s not that easy. It takes some practices and timing, and you could slowly see it coming back.”

The road to the conference title was not an easy one.

WKU, the No. 6 seed, earned its only blowout win of the weekend Friday against No. 11 seed Louisiana-Monroe in a 74-60 win.

The Toppers overcame No. 3 seed South Alabama and SBC Player of the Year, Augustine Rubit, the next night 62-59. Trailing 59-58 with 18 seconds to go, Crook and Harris recorded two crucial steals in the closing moments to help WKU move on.

The Toppers beat No. 2 seed Arkansas State, a team that beat WKU twice in the regular season, 58-56 Sunday night. Price was the hero against the Red Wolves — he dropped 24 points on ASU and had a steal and lay-up with 19 seconds left to give WKU the lead for good.

No. 4 seed Florida-International, fresh off of a surprise win over No. 1 seed Middle Tennessee the night before, awaited the Toppers in the finals. WKU rode sophomore forward George Fant, who finished with 17 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks, to the Sun Belt title win.

Harper said that once they got healthier as a team, the Toppers were built to win four games in four days.

“If you watched four consecutive days of our practices, you would understand why they can probably get through four days of games,” he said after the FIU win.

Price was named the SBC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after averaging 18 points and 4.25 rebounds per game.

He said the Toppers aren’t planning on coming home after the first weekend like last season.

“This year is going to be different,” Price said. “We’re not just going to be glad because we made the tournament. This year we’re going to the tournament and planning on winning a couple of games and getting as deep as we possibly can.”