Toppers can’t close against MTSU, fall 70-62

Senior guard Jamal Crook dribbles past MTSU guard Tweety Knight during the game Saturday. WKU (16-15, 10-10 Sun Belt Conference) lost 70-62.

Lucas Aulbach

The Toppers went toe-to-toe Saturday with the best team in the Sun Belt Conference and nearly came out with their biggest win of the year.

WKU (16-15, 10-10 SBC) had a chance to win in the closing minutes but could not stop Middle Tennessee State. The Toppers fell 70-62 in the final regular-season game for both teams.

The game was tied 62-62 with a minute and a half to go but missed shots and turnovers helped the Blue Raiders rack up eight late points to put it away.

Senior point guard Jamal Crook said he holds himself responsible for the loss in his final home game but the with the Sun Belt Conference Tournament a week away, the Toppers can still use what they learned Saturday.

“It is what it is,” Crook said. “We’ll continue to play basketball next week. We’ve got to take this one as a loss and move forward.”

Crook, along with senior guard Marcus Vasquez, was honored during Senior Day ceremonies before the game.

Coach Ray Harper said he attributes the loss to the experience of the MTSU roster – the Blue Raiders have 13 upperclassmen on their roster.

“That’s what veteran basketball teams do,” he said.

While the Blue Raiders relied on veterans, young guns were the key for WKU Saturday.

Sophomore forward George Fant led all scorers with 18 points and pulled in a team-high six rebounds.

Sophomore T.J. Price added 14 points of his own, including 11 in the second half, while freshman center Aleksejs Rostov had six points and five boards in 20 minutes of play.

Harper said he was pleased with the overall effort of his team.

“I thought our guys were terrific,” Harper said. “I thought they competed – a break here or there and it’s a different outcome – against a really good basketball team. It was a great game.”

Diddle Arena was packed for the game – 7,326 fans were in attendance, including hundreds dressed in MTSU blue, at the sellout game.

Crook said the fact that the house was so full made the loss that much more disappointing.

“It definitely felt good to have the fans come out and support the last game,” he said. “That’s always a plus, but at the end of the day, we lost – it would have been better if we won but I appreciate the fans and stuff coming out and supporting. That’s always a big up.”

While it’s tough losing a close game, there is no shame in losing to MTSU (27-4, 19-1 SBC). The Blue Raiders lead the conference in scoring offense, scoring defense, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and assists and have a five-game lead over South Alabama, which has the second-best Sun Belt record.

The loss also had an impact on seeding in the upcoming Sun Belt Conference Tournament. With a win and loss by Arkansas-Little Rock, the Toppers would have vaulted into the No. 5 seed and earned a first round bye – instead, they will take the No. 6 seed and play their first tournament game this Friday against Louisiana-Monroe.

Crook said despite the loss, the Toppers have momentum in their favor as the head to Hot Springs, Ark., for the tourney.

“We’ve won three of the last four,” he said. “The key was to go in with momentum. We fought hard tonight and we showed the capability that we can beat the best team.”