It sounded like March Madness in Diddle Arena Saturday night.
A sellout crowd of 7,326 fans packed the house to watch the final regular season game of the season for the Toppers. WKU’s next step is the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
While the Toppers fell Saturday to Middle Tennessee State 70-62, coach Ray Harper said the way his players competed against the top team in the Sun Belt gives him confidence moving forward.
“I thought our guys were terrific,” Harper said. “I thought they competed – a break here or there and it’s a different outcome – against a really good basketball team. It was a great game.”
The Toppers will kick off spring break this weekend with a trip to Hot Springs, Ark.
WKU (16-15, 10-10 SBC) earned the No. 6 seed in the 11-team conference tournament and will play its first game Friday at 6 p.m. against Louisiana-Monroe. The winner of that game will face No. 3-seed South Alabama Saturday at 8:30 p.m.
The Toppers will have to win four games in a row to win the tournament and earn the Sun Belt’s only automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
WKU’s only winning streak of the season longer than three games came early in the season, when the Toppers won six games in a row between Nov. 21 and Dec. 8.
The team was in peak condition then – injuries to key players, however, helped cause the Toppers to finish the season on an 8-13 run which included three three-game losing streaks.
As the team has gotten healthier, the wins have come. The Toppers have won three of their past four games, and senior point guard Jamal Crook said after the MTSU game he thinks that momentum will carry over to this weekend.
“We’ve won three of the last four,” he said. “The key was to go in with momentum. We fought hard tonight and we showed the capability that we can beat the best team.”
Two of those three wins came against ULM and South Alabama, WKU’s first two potential tournament opponents.
Momentum was on WKU’s side coming into the tournament last season as well. That year, the Toppers won three of their last four regular season games before winning four straight as a No. 7 seed in the conference tournament en route to and NCAA Tournament berth.
The way the Toppers have been playing lately has sophomore forward George Fant feeling like they can make a similar run this season, he said.
“I have a lot of confidence in my team, a lot of confidence in my coaching staff,” Fant said. “I feel like we’re going to go down to conference and raise hell.”
Crook agreed with Fant’s feelings.
“It’s good to have momentum going down to the tournament,” Crook said. “We can definitely go down there and make some noise.”
ULM (4-22, 3-17 SBC), WKU’s first opponent in the tournament this season, has struggled this season. The Warhawks lost to the Toppers twice and have won one of their past 15 games.