Stephens: Price fuels this round of Harper Mania

Sophomore guard T.J. Price drives against Arkansas State freshman guard Josh Pierre during their semifinal Sun Belt Conference tournament game.

Brad Stephens

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — The Toppers can thank Tournament T.J. for living to fight another day.

WKU super sophomore T.J. Price kept WKU’s season alive Sunday almost on his own. He scored 24 points and came up with the game-winning steal and bucket in a 58-56 win against Arkansas State in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Semifinals at Summit Arena.

The No. 6 seed Toppers advanced to face No. 4 seed FIU at 6 p.m. Monday (ESPN) in the Sun Belt Championship game. Win and WKU will be back in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in as many seasons under coach Ray Harper.

It’s a plot that sounds familiar enough for Harper and the Toppers (19-15).

“We’re in the Twilight Zone,” he said. “It’s just like last year. That’s what it seems like.”

Four times last year WKU trailed in the second half of a Sun Belt Tournament game in Hot Springs. Four times it came out on top, advancing to the school’s first NCAA Tournament since 2009.

The run fueled the “Harper Mania” phenomenon and the Topper fans’ cult-like following of the Bremen native.

This year’s run is looking remarkably similar to last year’s. After a blowout win over ULM in the first round, WKU recorded two come-from-beind second half wins over South Alabama Saturday and ASU Sunday.

Fans and pundits were chalked this latest win to another case of Harper Mania after the game. But Sunday was less a case of Harper heroics than T.J. Price willing the Toppers to a win.

One night after each member of WKU’s Big Three, Price, George Fant and Jamal Crook, each had big games against South Al, Price had to do it himself against ASU.

Fant had one of the worst games of his Topper career, fouling out after scoring five points on 0-of-6 shooting. Crook was also limited by foul trouble, playing just 13 minutes and scoring three points.

Winning a game against the No. 2 seed Red Wolves (19-12) with WKU’s top inside threat and point guard playing so poorly was about unthinkable.

But Price compensated for Fant and Crook’s off-games by playing one of his best games of the year.

“We knew we had a chance and when you’ve got a guy like T.J. Price in your uniform,” Harper said, “I feel pretty good.”

He was the Toppers’ lone source of offense throughout the game, hitting jump shots and getting to the basket when no one else was.

But Price saved his best play of the game for the very end, stealing the ball from the Red Wolves’ Ed Townsel and taking the ball in for a layup to give WKU a 57-56 lead with 19 seconds.

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

Price’s steal and dash for the basket came one night after Crook made the same play to clinch the Toppers’ win over South Al. Had the Slidell, La., native not made the play, WKU’s 2012-13 season probably would’ve ended in disappointment.

Through three games Price is the frontrunner for Tournament MVP, averaging 21.3 points per game in 33.7 minutes per contest. There’s no reason to think he won’t turn in another sterling performance Monday.

But if Tournament T.J. has to do it all on his own again Monday, then there won’t be another Topper net-cutting ceremony at the end.

WKU has to get production from Crook running the offense and playing up top on D.

The Toppers need Fant to get to the basket and put the ball through the hoop rather than off the rim.

“We don’t win if he doesn’t play well,” Harper said of Fant. “If he does not play well tomorrow night, we don’t win.

“It’s that simple. But I’ve been around him for two years now and I watched him for a long time in high school — I’ll make a prediction he’ll bring it tomorrow night.”

If those three play well, if Brandon Harris can repeat his performance Sunday (three 3-pointers, good defense) and if Harper can get some good production out of frontcourt players like Aleksejs Rostov and O’Karo Akamune, then there’s no reason WKU can’t punch an NCAA ticket.

“We’ve got guys like T.J., we’ve got guys like Brandon and Kevin (Kaspar) and Aleksejs,” Crook said. “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.”

Don’t be surprised if you start seeing more cheers of Harper Mania if WKU wins its second straight league title.

But there may not have been a chance at Harper Mania II were it not for the heroics of Tournament T.J. Sunday.