Seeing double: For second straight year, WKU’s season ends against No. 1 seed

Lucas Aulbach

For 20 minutes Friday, it looked like the Toppers might pull off one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history.

No. 16 seed WKU (20-16) gave No. 1 Kansas seed a run for its money at the Sprint Center in Kansas City but couldn’t pull off the NCAA Tournament win in the end — the Toppers fell 64-57 to the Jayhawks after leading 31-30 at halftime.

It was the second consecutive season WKU has fallen to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — last year, the Toppers lost to eventual national champion Kentucky.

The comparisons between last season and WKU’s 2012-13 campaign don’t end there.

Both teams struggled through the season. Both teams got hot late and won four games in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

But this time around the Toppers looked like they might earn a crucial difference — a win over a top-seeded opponent.

A cold stretch in the second half doomed WKU, though. The Toppers shot just 7-of-38 in the second half, at one point missing on ten consecutive attempts.

Coach Ray Harper said those missed shots were the difference.

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

The Toppers also struggled to contain Kansas center Jeff Withey.

Withey was a dominant force in the paint, finishing with 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting, six rebounds and seen blocked shots.

Sophomore forward George Fant was stuck with the job of trying to stop the 7-0 center.

Fant, who finished with 10 points, said it was disappointing to watch the season slip away in the second half due to those missed shots.

“We talked about stepping on the throat and finish it off,” he said. “First four minutes in the second half we came out a little slow. That’s all it takes, you know.”

The tournament loss was the cap on an interesting, up-and-down year for the WKU basketball team.

The Toppers looked like an NCAA Tournament team at the start of the season, going 8-2 over the course of the fist month.

The team’s fortunes changed before it hit the toughest point of its schedule.

Senior guard Jamal Crook broke a bone in his right foot after WKU’s win over IUPUI Dec. 8, forcing him to miss almost two months of play — the Toppers went 3-9 without their starting point guard. Junior guard Caden Dickerson, sophomore guard Kevin Kaspar, and sophomore guard T.J. Price all suffered through injuries as well.

WKU went 2-3 after Crook returned before setting fire to close the season, winning three of its last four regular season games and winning four straight at the conference tournament to earn an NCAA Tournament berth.

Friday was the final game of Crook’s four-year Topper career. He said he sees more success in WKU’s future.

” It’s unfortunate that I had to go out the way I did but I wouldn’t hang my head for anything,” he said after the game. “I love my teammates, I love my coaching staff. I wish them the best.”

A seven-point loss looks good in comparison to some estimations of how the Toppers would do — the Jayhawks were listed as an over 20-point favorite in the week leading up to the game.

Harper said he was proud of the effort his team put on the court in Kansas City.

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