Toppers can’t get past Louisville, drop third straight

WKU sophomore forward George Fant (right) fights for the ball with Louisville  sophomore forward Chane Behanan during the game Saturday, Dec. 22,  at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. Louisville defeated Western Kentucky 78-55. 

Lucas Aulbach

NASHVILLE — The Toppers couldn’t get anything going in Bridgestone Arena against in-state rival Louisville Saturday as they fell 78-55.

It was the third consecutive loss and the last nonconference game on WKU’s (8-5) schedule.

They Toppers looked better Saturday than they did in Tuesday’s blowout loss at Virginia Commonwealth. Despite trailing by double-digits for almost the entire game, the Toppers hung with No. 5 Louisville (11-1) through the second half, cutting the deficit to 12 points with about nine minutes left in the second half before letting the Cardinals build their lead again.

“Our kids competed — I’m really proud of them,” coach Ray Harper said. “In the second half we did a really good job taking care of the basketball, we made good decisions, we kept the ball in the middle of the floor, we advanced it with the pass, not the dribble. I thought we grew up a lot in the second half tonight.”

The Toppers could hardly get down the court at times, as the Louisville defense forced 20 turnovers.

The problems didn’t stop there — they had trouble putting the ball in the hoop when the Toppers were able to get a shot off. WKU made just 19-of-49 attempts and shot 38.8-percent from the floor.

Injuries also continued to haunt the Toppers. Senior guard Jamal Crook, WKU’s starting point guard, was out with a broken right foot. Sophomore guard T.J. Price started and saw his first playing time since the Toppers faced Southern Illinois Dec. 2, but came back to the bench in the first half and did not return. Sophomore guard Kevin Kaspar also saw limited playing time due to a hamstring injury.

“We thought T.J. and Kevin were ready to go and they tweaked some things early,” Harper said after the game. “Both wanted to go back and I said ‘That’s it. We’re not taking that chance tonight. No Way.’”

Harper said he thought the Topper bench performed well in the absence of some of their top performers.

“What’d these guys do? They stepped up and performed and represented,” he said. “Like I said, I’m very proud of the way they competed.”

The injuries have had an interesting effect on the Toppers — Price leads WKU in points while Crook is the No. 2 scorer and leads the team in assists. They have forced players like freshman forward Eddie Alcantara, who finished with 11 points and six rebounds, to log significant playing time that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Alcantara said the Topper bench should grow as they continue to push through the injuries.

“I think it’s going to help a lot,” he said. “You go out there, you get the experience, you get the jitters out, butterflies, and you learn.”

The Topper offense once again ran through junior guard Brandon Harris, who was the lone offensive bright spot for WKU. Harris finished led the Toppers in points, rebounds and assists with 14, six and three, respectively.

Harris, like Alcantara, said the injuries have given the Topper bench players a chance to get better as WKU prepares to start its Sun Belt Conference schedule.

“Coach said, I think about two weeks ago, that his teams that he’s always coached get better after an injury, and I’m starting to see that,” he said.

The Toppers are already learning from the knocks they took this week. Harris said facing VCU’s pressing defense Tuesday helped them prepare for the Cardinal defense Saturday.

“(The VCU defense) prepared me even more for this game right here,” Harris said. “Honestly, the pressure didn’t seem as bad — nowhere close to it.”

Sophomore forward George Fant also played a big role in the offense, scoring 11 points on 5-of-10 shooting with two rebounds before fouling out late in the second half.

Fant, who played high school basketball at Warren Central, was facing off against former high school rival Chane Behanan, a sophomore forward for Louisville who played high school ball at Bowling Green. Behanan countered his former rival with 14 points and seven rebounds of his own.

Saturday’s game marked the end of arguably the toughest stretch of the season for WKU. The Toppers went 0-3 this week in games against Murray State Sunday, VCU Tuesday, and Louisville Saturday.

The game against Louisville was also the last nonconference bout on WKU’s schedule. The Toppers will continue Sun Belt play at home Thursday against Florida International.

Despite coming out on the losing end, Harper said he was happy with the effort he saw from WKU against Louisville.

“We’re playing the No. 5-ranked team in the country and we gave them all they wanted for about 30, 32, 33 minutes,” Harper said.