Stephens: Big Three get it done for WKU Saturday

Sophomore forward George Fant attemps to block a shot by South Alabama junior forward Augustine Rubit in the first half of their Sun Belt Conference Game. 

Brad Stephens

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — You didn’t need to be a basketball genius last fall to predict who WKU’s three most important players would be this year.

There was Jamal Crook, the senior leader at point guard. There was George Fant, the local prep star turned dominant power forward. And there was T.J. Price, the gutty shooting guard from Louisiana that always seemed to rise to the occasion when stakes were highest during his freshman year.

Various injuries robbed Topper fans the chance to see the talented trio in action together for most of the year.

Saturday night they got to see what happens when all three are healthy and playing to their potential.

Crook, Fant and Price all had big nights Saturday and carried WKU past South Alabama 62-59 in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Quarterfinals at Convention Center Court.

Those three wouldn’t let the Toppers’ season die on a night when WKU (18-15) got out to a 22-7 lead, let the Jaguars (17-12) come all the way back during the middle of the game and spent the last few minutes in a second-round seesaw battle.

First there was Price. The 6-foot-4 Slidell, La., native came into the night having scored in double-figures in eight straight games and in 25 of his last 31.

He reached that mark in the first half, scoring 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting, including two threes hit from Pine Bluff.

Then while the WKU offense was in a rut for much of the second half Price hit a few big jump shots to keep the Toppers on the board. He finished with 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting, hitting three of his seven 3-point shots and three of his four free throw attempts.

“The fact of the game was that T.J. Price is playing really well,” South Alabama coach Jeff Price said. “He’s so aggressive with the ball, and we knew that. We were switching and he got a couple of open looks late and he knocked down shots.”

Fant was able to take control of the inside with Price getting it done from mid-range and long-range.

The former Warren Central High School standout drew the toughest defensive assignment anyone in the Sun Belt could draw — league player of the year Augustine Rubit.

Fant and the Toppers gave up 22 points to Rubit, but it came on just 4-of-18 shooting. That 22-percent shooting mark was Rubit’s worst of the season.

He did get to the line 16 times, making 14 free throws. But WKU and coach Ray Harper will take 14 missed field goal attempts from another team’s star any day of the week.

“They’re a very good basketball team with the premiere player in the league, Augustine Rubit,” Harper said. “I thought George did a tremendous job on him tonight.”

Offensively, Fant scored 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting. He also grabbed a game-high nine rebounds. Simply put, Fant out-Rubited Augustine Rubit Saturday.

Finally there was Crook, the senior leader who prolonged his career with the biggest steal of his life.

Down 59-58 with 18 seconds to play, Crook swiped the ball from South Al’s Barrington Stevens III, then drove in for a go-ahead layup.

The plan in that situation was to get a couple of traps in before fouling to stop the clock, Harper said. The old “go for the steal and then foul” strategy couldn’t have played out any better.

“Coach told us we’ve been down before and in situations like that,” Crook said. “We came out of the timeout, we knew what we had to do. I saw the ball in front of my eyes, I saw daylight so I went for it, got it and got the bucket.”

Crook finished the game with 10 points, four of which came in the final two minutes. The Louisville native has been in plenty of close games for the Toppers during his four-year career and he played Saturday like he knew what to do down the stretch in a tight one.

The road now gets tougher for the Toppers. A 9 p.m. date with No. 2 seed Arkansas State awaits them Sunday in Summit Arena.

The Red Wolves dominated WKU in both regular season meetings, notching a 75-61 win Jan. 5 in Jonesboro and a 67-49 victory Feb. 9 in Diddle Arena.

But the Toppers’ Big Three wasn’t at its full potential in either of those games. The first meeting, Crook was out with a broken foot while Price was still limping from a sprained ankle. The second time around Crook was back in the lineup but still hobbled by the bad foot.

Now both of them are fully recovered and, along with Fant, form a Topper triumvirate that will determine how much longer WKU keeps playing.

If Jamal Crook, George Fant and T.J. Price all play as well against the Red Wolves as they did against the Jaguars, then the Toppers may be punching another Sun Belt Tournament Finals ticket.