Stephens: Sunday an encouraging loss for WKU

Junior guard Brandon Harris fights for the ball going out of bounds. WKU lost 75-70 against Murray State at the CFSB Center in Murray on Dec. 16.

Brad Stephens

MURRAY — Ray Harper said he’d never seen anything like the injuries WKU had to deal with Sunday at Murray State.

T.J. Price, the team’s best shooting guard, was out with a sprained ankle. Jamal Crook, the Toppers’ veteran point guard, was limited by a foot injury. Reserve guard Kevin Kaspar played 30 minutes despite a hamstring issue. Center Teeng Akol got dinged up at one point in the first and had to come out of the game for a few minutes.

Factor that into Caden Dickerson being out with a shoulder injury and Nigel Snipes lost for the year with an ACL tear, and the Toppers were severely limited against the Racers.

Maybe that’s why WKU’s 75-70 loss in the CFSB Center Sunday didn’t seem like too bad a defeat.

“We were right there with a depleted roster,” Harper said.

A loss obviously wasn’t what the Toppers had in mind when they went west to take on their in-state rival. But considering the circumstances, a five-point loss felt less like a loss than it did a draw.

Murray is a fringe top-25 team that will more than likely walk through the Ohio Valley Conference and go dancing at the NCAA Tournament in March.

The Racers feature star guard Isaiah Canaan, an All-America candidate, and power forward Ed Daniel, one of the best frontcourt men WKU will face all year.

WKU’s rotation for much of the second half? Transfer guard Brandon Harris, walk-on Percy Blade, Akol, a banged-up George Fant, a struggling Kaspar and role players O’Karo Akamune and Stephon Drane.

Nothing against that bunch, but without Price and Crook, and even Snipes and Dickerson, it certainly wasn’t the group WKU fans expected to see on the floor when they circled this rivalry game in their calendars before the season.

Yet what the Toppers lacked in personnel, they nearly made up for in resiliency.

Harris especially was impressive, scoring 23 points on 8-of-20 shooting. As WKU’s only real backcourt scoring option for the second half, he ran the show offensively for the Toppers in the second half.

He also spent most of his 39 game minutes matched up man-to-man with Canaan and, for much of the game, effectively contained him.

“Brandon is one of those guys that at time he tries to be too unselfish,” Harper said. “Today he let it fly.

“I think he knew we didn’t have T.J. and then all of a sudden we don’t have Jamal — he was making things happen. I know they were having a difficult time guarding him.”

Canaan finally took over at the end, putting WKU away with 16 second-half points.

But the fact it took that late Canaan burst to put the Toppers away says a lot about the way WKU handled its problems Sunday.

Rather than fold up and leave Murray with a 15-point loss, the Toppers fought through a slew of injuries and just about pulled out an improbable win.

“With the guys that can’t play, or didn’t play today, we saw that our bench, the guys that probably don’t get a lot of minutes in games, they came out and played tough,” Harris said.

The road, at least for the rest of this week, will only get tougher for WKU. The Toppers take on another mid-major power, Virginia Commonwealth, Tuesday in Richmond. Four days later the Toppers will face their toughest opponent of the year, No. 6 Louisville, in Nashville.

As of Sunday night, nothing has been announced on the status of Crook and Price for those games. If one or both is inactive Tuesday and Saturday, it’ll be another uphill climb for WKU.

But if the Toppers can survive this early injury bug then things aren’t looking that bad.

WKU matched a quality Racers team blow-for-blow Sunday with a ragtag squad and almost pulled an upset.

They showed resiliency and toughness and also proved they have some other guys, like Harris, that can fill the void if need be.

“I’ve won national championships and walked into that locker room as proud of any basketball team I’ve ever coached because they competed,” Harper said.

Once Price and Crook get healthy, and if everyone else avoids injury, then the Toppers still have a squad capable of matching up with anyone in the Sun Belt.

They proved Sunday that they didn’t need two of their best players to hang with a good Murray team.

It was a loss, and Harper, the Toppers and their fans would’ve much rather left the CFSB Center with a win.

But considering all the circumstances, for a loss it was still an encouraging sign.