Toppers steal wild quarterfinal win from South Alabama

Freshman center Aleksejs Rostov and South Alabama junior forward Augustine Rubit fight for a rebound during their second Sun Belt Tournament Conference game.

Lucas Aulbach

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — The Toppers earned a tournament win Saturday that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in WKU’s miracle run in last season’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

The Toppers beat South Alabama 62-59 at Convention Center Court in a game that was the definition of a nail-biter.

The game came down to the final seconds. Trailing USA 59-58 with 20 seconds to go, senior guard Jamal Crook stole the ball from USA guard Barrington Stevens III and took it to the hoop to give WKU the lead.

Junior guard Brandon Harris followed Crook’s lead on the next possession, recording a steal on USA forward Augustine Rubit with 10 seconds to go. Harris was fouled and sophomore guard T.J. Price was fouled on the ensuing inbounds pass and hit two free throws to extend the lead.

USA was able to get off two shots in an attempt to tie the game, but 3-point shots from Stevens and Rubit failed to fall, and the Toppers earned a spot in the tournament semifinals.

Crook said despite the bleak outlook in the final minute, the Toppers never gave up hope.

“Coach told us we’ve been down before,” Crook said. “We’ve been in situations like that so we came out of the timeout and we knew what we had to do.”

Coach Ray Harper said he was proud of the way his team competed down the stretch.

“I thought we battled, I thought we competed until the final buzzer and once again, I’m just awfully proud of how hard these kids fought,” he said.

The first half was a tale of two runs. The Toppers rushed out to a 22-5 lead to open the game before surrendering a 21-7 run to the Jaguars to close the half. WKU led 29-26 at halftime.

The Jaguars closed the gap early in the second half, taking their first lead with 15:35 to go.

Much of their success came through Rubit, who finished with a team-leading 22 points. The forward hit just 4-of-18 shots but connected on 14-of-16 free throws to keep USA in the game.

Harper said he was pleased with Fant’s defensive effort trying to hold Rubit in the paint.

“They’re a very good basketball team with the premier player in the league in Augustine Rubit and I though George did a tremendous job on him tonight,” Harper said. “He was 4-for-18 from the field — he did end up with 22 points, but 14 of those came at the free-throw line.”

WKU won’t have much time to savor the victory. The Toppers will take the court again Sunday at 9 p.m. and face No. 2 seed Arkansas State, which earned an overtime win over Troy to advance to the semifinals.

Crook said the Toppers are starting to feel like they can win the whole tournament — just like last year.

“It’s starting to definitely feel like last year,” he said. “Last year they counted us out and this year they’re counting us out so our goal is to go in and take it – same motto as last year.

“We didn’t come here to win one, we didn’t come here to win two, we’ve got a third game tomorrow so we’re going to have the same motto.”