COLUMN: Improbable bunch of Toppers making a special run

Freshman guard Derrick Gordon celebrates as teammates hug at the Sun Belt Conference Tournament against Denver on Monday, March 5 in Hot Springs, Ark. Gordon scored seven points to help WKU win 67-63. No. 7 seed WKU will play for the Sun Belt title against No. 5 seed North Texas on Tuesday. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

Brad Stephens

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — WKU is going to the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game.

Yeah, that WKU.

Those same Toppers that lost in December to lightweights IUPUI and Furman.

Those same Toppers that drew about 1,800 fans to a Jan. 5 home loss to Louisiana-Lafayette.

Those same Toppers that saw Head Coach Ken McDonald fired exactly two months prior to the day when WKU will compete for the Sun Belt Conference title on Tuesday.

It was those same Toppers, the Sun Belt’s No. 7 seed, that beat No. 3 seed Denver 67-63 in the final minutes on Monday in Summit Arena to set up a 6 p.m. matchup on Tuesday against No. 5 seed North Texas for the league championship.

When McDonald was canned on Jan. 6 and assistant Ray Harper was promoted to become interim head coach, the community began to have a little more optimism about the program.

Here’s a guy, fans thought, that grew up around here and knows that the program is about.

He knew X’s and O’s and had won everywhere he’d been.

If given the chance, a lot of fans thought at the time, he could start taking this team to some conference championship games and back in the NCAA Tournament where they belong.

But not many people thought it would happen this soon.

A WKU team which once looked in late game situations like some AAU players who’d met that morning has become the symbol of coolness in the clutch.

Counting the Toppers’ final two regular season games against Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee State, and Sun Belt Tournament games against FIU, Arkansas-Little Rock and on Monday against Denver, their last five games have been decided by an average of 4.4 points.

WKU is 5-0 in those games.

The No. 3 seed Pioneers led the No. 7 seed Toppers 61-60 with just 2:36 to play in the semifinals on Monday.

On one side was Denver, and guard Brian Stafford, a senior All-Sun Belt performer who was 5-of-7 in the second half and primed to get the ball in the last two minutes.

On the other end was WKU, and freshman forward George Fant, a Bowling Green native in the midst of a 6-of-8 field goal shooting, 7-of-9 free throw shooting, 19-point night.

In the end it was Fant that made the decisive basket, a layup off a perfect pass from fellow freshman forward Vinny Zollo that pushed WKU’s lead to 64-61.

Then in the final seconds Stafford had a chance to win the game, but his attempt at a game-winning three missed short.

Freshman guard Derrick Gordon then stuffed the putback attempt from Denver forward Royce O’Neale and suddenly the Toppers had just punched an improbable ticket to play for a Sun Belt Championship.

So here we are looking to Tuesday, March 6, at Summit Arena in Hot Springs, Ark.

A national audience on ESPN2 will get a look at a Topper team still largely unknown to most outside of the 270 area code.

Those tuning in around the world will likely hear for the first time names like George Fant, Kahlil McDonald, Derrick Gordon and Ray Harper.

They’ll likely see a WKU team hitting shots, making the right passes, winning the rebounding battle, doing enough on defense and fighting from tip to buzzer.

But only those in that locker room and maybe those 1,800 or so there for the ULL game that stuck with the program through its most mediocre moments will really appreciate what’s happened.

WKU is a special place that’s seen a lot of great basketball teams, and there’s been plenty more talented and with a better record than the 2011-2012 bunch.

But Topper fans need to take some time on Tuesday to soak in the accomplishments of this squad and just really enjoy it.

Harper has taken a bunch of loose parts and turned them into a team that has done nothing in Hot Springs but make the school and community proud.

And now this team is 40 minutes away from the NCAA Tournament.

That’s pretty special.