Toppers earn spot in SBC title

Junior guard Brandon Harris screams in celebration while teammate sophomore guard Kevin Kaspar hugs him after their win in the semifinals Sun Belt Conference Tournament over Arkansas State. WKU entered the tournament as a six seed before upsetting the third seeded South Alabama Jaguars and the second seeded Red Wolves.

Lucas Aulbach

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Another night, another wild finish for WKU in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

A night after two steals in the last 20 seconds won the game, the Toppers stole another one, beating Arkansas State 58-56 thanks to heroics from senior guard Jamal Crook and sophomore guard T.J. Price in the final minute.

The win earned WKU a spot in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship. The Toppers will face Florida International at 6 p.m. tomorrow at Summit Arena. The winner will get a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

“I’ve got to credit these young men,” coach Ray Harper said after the game. “They just find ways to keep playing. I’ll have to go back and look at the tape to try and figure out how we did it again. We’ve got 24 hours to get ready to try and do it one more time.”

The final moments may have caused some heart attacks back in Bowling Green.

The Toppers trailed 56-53 with under a minute to go before a jumper from Crook — his only bucket of the night — cut the deficit to one.

Price stole the ball from ASU guard Ed Townsel with 22 seconds to go and took it to the hoop to give WKU the lead once again.

“Coaches were telling me to just stay low and keep my man in front of me and that’s what I did, just tried my best to stay low and he put the ball in front of me,” Price said about the steal. “When I saw it I just moved on it.”

The Red Wolves had a chance to take the lead again as the clock kept ticking, but couldn’t convert on a couple of shots under the rim.

Crook was fouled after picking up the rebound. He hit one free throw with 10 seconds to go. A last-second 3-pointer from ASU guard Cameron Golden fell short and the Toppers had locked up a spot in the title game.

It was not a pretty win for WKU by any means. Two of the top Topper performers had games well below their standards — Crook finished with three points and just one assist while sophomore forward George Fant, who averaged 15 points and seven rebounds in WKU’s previous two tournament games, fouled out and went 0-of-6 from the field, finishing with five points and three rebounds.

Crook said it says a lot about the Toppers that they could stay in the game when some of their top performers were in the middle of an off-night.

“We’re fighters. We’ve been doing it since day one,” Crook said. “We’ve got guys like T.J., we’ve got guys like Brandon and Kevin and Aleksejs. That’s the unique thing about our team — if one guy doesn’t step up, somebody else will. That’s what I love about my team.”

Price took it upon himself to pick up the slack. The guard hit 8-of-20 shots and dropped 24 points on the Red Wolves.

“I thought he willed us to a win at the end of the game,” Crook said about Price. “It’s why he’s one of the premier players in this league.”

Sophomore guard Brandon Harris also had a good day from the field, connecting on three 3-point shots and finishing with 11 points and seven rebounds.

The game was close for the full 40 minutes — neither team was able to gain the upper-hand at any point in the night. While the Topper had a slight advantage in points for much of the game, the biggest lead at any time was seven points.

ASU rolled to a 13-6 lead in the first few minutes before giving up a 15-2 run to WKU. The Toppers led 28-26 at halftime, with Price contributing 12 of those points.

WKU will play again Monday for all the marbles. The Toppers will face Florida International at 6 p.m. at Summit Arena in Hot Springs, Ark. — the winner will move on to the NCAA Tournament.

FIU, the No. 4 seed in the tournament, upset No. 1 seed Middle Tennessee State to earn a spot in the title game. The Golden Panthers, who went 8-23 last season, worked to an 18-13 record this year.

Harper said he thinks Topper fans could be in for another nail-biter.

“We’re where we wanted to be,” Harper said. “We wanted to be in the championship game and we’ll be here tomorrow night a 6 o’clock, we’ll show up and it’ll be a really good basketball game I’m sure.”