Stephens: WKU comes frustratingly close to history

WKU junior forward O’Karo Akamune (#15) waits for action to resume during the second half March 22 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. KU beat WKU 64-57.

Brad Stephens

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Everything was in place for WKU to make history.

One-hundred fifteen No. 1 seeds had beat 115 No. 16 seeds going into the Toppers’ South Regional game against Kansas Friday at the Sprint Center. WKU came about as close to making a tally for the underdog as any team ever has.

The Toppers made future NBA lottery pick Ben McLemore (11 points, 2-of-5 shooting) a non-factor. They took care of the ball (10 turnovers) while hounding the Jayhawks with full-court pressure (nine steals). They made up for a size disadvantage by out-rebounding Kansas 41-35. That included a whopping 18 to four advantage on the offensive glass. The Jayhawks didn’t hit a 3-pointer for the first time in an NCAA Tournament game since 1992.

On top of all that, WKU coach Ray Harper had his team far more motivated and prepared than did Kansas coach Bill Self. Harper coached circles around Self, whether it be subbing often early to save legs for late in the game, going back and forth between man and zone defenses or even putting forward George Fant at point guard to keep center Jeff Withey away from the paint.

WKU did nearly everything it could to pull off the No. 16 over No. 1 upset. There was just one problem: it couldn’t buy a basket.

That’s why the final score read Kansas 64, WKU 57. And that’s why one of the most ridiculous streaks in sports will live to see 2014.

“We had a lot of looks,” Fant said. “We just didn’t finish them.”

Seventeen of the misses came from the outside. Seven in the paint found the long arms of Withey, an All-American seven-footer.

Many in between just found the rim and bounced off.

The Toppers (20-16) took 39 shots in the second half. Eight went through the net. That amounts to a grand total of 20.5 percent field goal shooting.

What was the final combined stat line of WKU’s three best shooters — Caden Dickerson, Brandon Harris and T.J. Price? 25 shot attempts. Four makes. Seventeen 3-point attempts. Three makes.

You can chalk it up to defensive stoppers like Travis Releford and Withey or you can chalk it up to just plain missing open shots. The fact is, with the game right there and ready for the taking, WKU simply couldn’t put the ball through the net.

“We had seven, eight games before this where we’re shooting 40 or 50 percent,” said Harris, who finished with four points on 1-of-7 shooting. “They catch us on that night and we could easily win this game by five or 10.

“We were guarding, we were rebounding, we were doing everything we were supposed to do. It’s just shots didn’t go in. That’s basketball.”

Earlier Friday in the same arena, Mississippi jump-shooter Marshall Henderson faced the same circumstances in the first half against Wisconsin. Henderson, a streaky 3-point shooter with a liberal green light from coach Andy Kennedy, went 1-for-12 in the first half and Ole Miss trailed at the break.

But Henderson kept firing, turned it on in the second half, hit some big shots and helped Ole Miss to a 57-46 win.

Watching WKU later Friday night you always had this feeling that, like Henderson earlier, eventually some of its struggling shooters would start to break out and hit a shot.

If Harris, Dickerson or Price could get just one to fall, you thought, then maybe the lid would come off the basket for everyone else.

The lid eventually came off, but not in time to save the Toppers.

Price and Harris hit WKU’s second and third 3-pointer of the night with 1:57 and :25 to play, respectively. By then the Jayhawks had taken control and turned the game into a free throw shooting contest.

Kansas hit 24-of-30 free throws, rendering what could’ve been game changing 3’s into mere box score stuffers.

For the Jayhawks, it was crisis averted after their potential championship season almost became the answer to a 1 vs. 16 trivia question. For the Toppers, it was a maddening case of what could’ve been had they just hit one or two flippin’ shots.

“You know,” Harper said, “our kids did everything they needed to do to put themselves in a position to try to win the basketball game. As a coach, that’s all you can ask.

“Sure, we didn’t have some shots go in that we normally make. But that’s the game of basketball, guys. It’s a game of inches.”

Two inches here and there on a Price 3, a Fant hook, a Dickerson jumper, and the Toppers would’ve pulled off the greatest upset, seed-wise, in NCAA Tournament history.

Instead WKU became one of the 116 on the 0-116 No. 1 vs. No. 16 stat line.

A stellar effort in almost every aspect of the game got the Toppers right to the edge of history. A bad luck shooting night kept them from making it.