COLUMN: You can’t count these Toppers out

Freshman guard Derrick Gordon pumps up his teammates before their game at the Sun Belt Tournament against UALR on Sunday, March 4 in Hot Springs, Ark. Gordon scored 15 points to help WKU win 68-63. 

Brad Stephens

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — WKU has given itself a tough act to follow on Monday night.

For a team that hasn’t been in a game decided by more than nine points since Jan. 28, it wasn’t real surprising the Toppers were locked in another instant classic on Sunday night against Arkansas-Little Rock in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Quarterfinals in Summit Arena.

Over the last two weeks we’ve seen WKU pull out such nail-biters.

There was freshman guard T.J. Price’s game-winning three to clinch a 79-76 win over Arkansas State on Feb. 23 in Diddle Arena.

Two days later WKU kept its composure after an early Middle Tennessee State run and out-slugged its rivals to the south for a 73-67 win in Diddle.

Then on Saturday, in their first Sun Belt Tournament game, the Toppers withstood a second half Florida International rally and delivered a 67-63 knockout blow to Isiah Thomas’ Panthers.

That makes me, and a lot of other people, feel a little dumb this morning that I counted WKU out on Sunday when UALR took a 53-40 lead on a layup from forward Courtney Jackson with 8:54 left.

It honestly appeared the Toppers had no shot to win that game.

First, WKU was getting no offense outside of freshman guard Derrick Gordon.

At one point in the second half, junior center Teeng Akol, senior guard Kahlil McDonald, junior guard Jamal Crook and freshman forward George Fant — four key offensive Toppers — were shooting a combined 5-of-24 from the floor.

WKU was able to get to the free throw line 41 times, but while there the Toppers converted just 21 of those attempts.

Then on the defensive end WKU was getting beat frequently off the dribble by Trojan guard D’Andre Williams, who finished with a team-high 19 points.

Unable to score, hit foul shots or get stops when they needed to, the Toppers looked like a team with its bags all but packed for an early trip back home to Bowling Green.

Then, trailing 56-45 with 5:51 to play, WKU made its most improbable run of the year.

A 17-0 burst allowed the Toppers to come back, take the lead for the first time and finish off a stunned UALR squad that was seeded No. 2 in the Sun Belt Tournament.

They got a McDonald three, layups from Gordon and Crook, lockdown defense from sophomore forward O’Karo Akamune and two heroic blocks from Fant.

WKU then hit enough foul shots to ice the game.

Just like that, the Toppers were jumping around celebrating a 68-63 win and an eighth-straight trip to the Sun Belt semifinals.

Most of the UALR folks in the stands were in a head-shaking, shell-shocked, “where did that come from?” state of mind as the buzzer sounded.

Their team’s season had just been ended by an out-of-the-blue run from a team that, outside of Gordon, sleepwalked through the first 3/4 of the game.

Ironically, a lot of WKU fans had the same look on their face throughout the comeback.

Two days before the two-month anniversary of the Ken McDonald-to-Ray Harper coaching change, the Toppers pulled off their most entertaining win of the season.

Luckily for all of us, we’ll get to watch this team again.

WKU will get another chance to entertain us all at 8:30 p.m. Monday night against a solid Denver team.

The teams met two months ago, nine days after Harper became interim head coach, and the Pioneers soundly defeated the Toppers 78-65 in Denver.

Denver is an efficient squad which makes 49 percent of its field goals and 40 percent of its threes, while holding its opponents to 60 points a game.

There’s a reason the 22-8 Pioneers come into the game nine-point favorites over the 13-18 Toppers.

But if the game on Sunday taught us anything, it taught us to not count out this WKU team, no matter score or situation.

So if the Toppers are down late on Monday and looking like they’re about to be eliminated, don’t reach for the remote, close the laptop or turn off the radio.

Instead, buckle in and get ready.

WKU might just be about to make this game another classic.