COULMN: Toppers punch back, move on to second round

Head Coach Ray Harper shouts instructions to the Toppers at the Sun Belt Tournament against Florida International on Saturday, March 3 in Hot Springs, Ark. WKU won 67-63.

Brad Stephens

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — WKU got Florida International’s best shot on Saturday night.

Isiah Thomas’ team has been chronic underachievers all season, going 8-20 in the regular season despite a roster loaded with three All-Sun Belt performers.

But the Panthers finally played to their potential in the first round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament against the Toppers.

FIU overcame a 41-29 second half deficit to take a 52-47 lead with 7:33 to play, caping off a 16-1 run.

The Panthers were hitting 3s, forcing bad shots and getting a 24-point, 12-rebound performance from guard DeJaun Wright.

To make matters worse, freshman forward George Fant was on the bench with an ankle injury.

FIU had swung its left hook, and WKU needed to answer.

The Toppers did just that, fighting back and grabbing an emotional 67-63 win.

It was the latest of a slew of close Sun Belt games WKU has been involved in this year.

The Toppers were losing those games earlier in the season, but down the stretch WKU has shown it knows how to punch back.

There was the 79-76 win over Arkansas State on Feb. 23, when the Toppers held off a late run with a game-winning three from freshman guard T.J. Price.

There was the 73-67 win over Middle Tennessee State on Feb. 25 when WKU stayed together after a 10-0 Blue Raider start and beat the Sun Belt regular season champions.

And there was the win on Saturday in which the Toppers got just enough big plays to pull through and advance to the Sun Belt quarterfinals.

“They punched us back in the mouth, we’ve got to be able to take a hit and come back,” senior guard Kahlil McDonald said.

A Jamal Crook jumper and McDonald three tied the game with 6:14 left.

Both teams had a run over the next few minutes and the score was deadlocked at 61 with 1:39 left.

But the Toppers got some defensive stops, made the best of their opportunities at the free throw line and won by four.

In the time of year where a loss will send a team home, WKU lived to fight another day.

Head Coach Ray Harper said it was a reward for some renewed toughness the Toppers have shown over the last month and a half.

“I keep going back to about 10 games ago is when I saw us really turn the corner,” Harper said. “…We’ve been right in every game. We’ve lost some tough ones, but here lately we’re really starting to figure out how to win those games, and that’s a really good sign.”

WKU didn’t play its best game on Saturday, but it did enough.

Almost no team can put together four perfect games in four days in a conference tournament scenario.

Instead, it usually takes at least one gritty, grind-it-out-late performance for a team to get its hands on a championship trophy.

The Toppers got that kind of win on Saturday.

Things won’t get any easier for WKU, which has defending Sun Belt champion Arkansas-Little Rock on the docket at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday in Summit Arena.

The Toppers may once again have to withstand some adversity in order to win that and advance to the Sun Belt semifinals.

“If you watched this team practice over the last three weeks this is not an accident that we’re winning tonight,” Harper said. “They prepared for this opportunity and they’ll get another one tomorrow night at 8:30.”