WKU’s storybook season continues in ‘Big Dance’

Senior guard Kahlil McDonald celebrates with his teammates after winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament against North Texas on March 6 in Hot Springs, Ark. WKU defeated North Texas 74-70 to earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament — its first since 2009.

Cole Claybourn

What a ride it’s been for 2011-2012 version of the Toppers.

They started out 5-14, dealt with a mid-season coaching change and lost several players along the way due to injuries.

Now they’re headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.

“A fiction writer couldn’t have written a better script,” WKU President Gary Ransdell said after the Toppers wrapped up an improbable run to win the Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship last week in Hot Springs, Ark.

Largely counted out by so many, including some fans, WKU — which entered the Sun Belt Tournament as the No. 7-seed with an 11-18 record — completed a storybook turnaround under new head coach Ray Harper.

The Toppers won their final six games of the season, including a 73-67 upset of league-leader Middle Tennessee State in front of a sold-out Diddle Arena crowd.

WKU went from playing in front just more than 2,000 fans in January to 7,326 in February.

The fans came in droves when the tides began to turn. The players credited their new coach, who brought a new style of play, a new mindset that focused on toughness and most importantly, a winning culture.

 “Coach Harper’s a great man,” freshman George Fant said after WKU’s Sun Belt championship win. “He’s living out his dream right now. It’s unbelievable… He won a few championships, and he’s bringing that here to Western.

“There’s nothing you can do — you’ve just got to play for him. Whatever he tells you to do, you just go out there and do it. He’s a great man.”

As for Harper? He credited his players.

He praised their changed mindset, their renewed focus, their maturity as the season progressed and their intensity in practice.

He said leading up to the Sun Belt Tournament, his team was practicing so well it was “scary.”

Harper rarely had to raise his voice or tell his players to do something twice.

The result was a conference championship run where WKU won four games in four days, highlighted by two 13-point comebacks in the final eight minutes of both games.

“Give them credit — they bought in to what we were telling them,” Harper said. “I knew when we left Bowling Green, Kentucky, and I’ve said this to (the media) that have been there with me every day. I knew we had a chance, and in this profession, this business, that’s all you ask. Give me an opportunity, and we’ll see what happens.”

Now the No. 16-seed Toppers sit as the lowest-rated team in the tournament and will have to play Mississippi Valley State on Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio for the right to play No. 1-seed Kentucky on Thursday in Louisville.

But if you ask the players, they’ll tell you that they feel like a team that exudes confidence.

“Really, I don’t look at us — I was telling a lot of people asking us about seeding and everything like that, traditional 16 seeds — I don’t think we’re your traditional, standard 16 seed,” freshman forward Vinny Zollo said. “For us, six in row, conference championship, a lot of changes within the program, new coach, a whole new philosophy on the game and our hot streak and plus the fact we’re playing at home — we’ll have a great fan support I know in Dayton. We win there, and I know we’ll have an even better one in Louisville.

“…We feel right now we’re on fire, and whoever we’re going to play, we’re going to cause some serious trouble. For us, it’s just a huge amount of confidence riding right now.”

The fairytale run to a tournament berth brought tears to Ransdell’s eyes as he strolled around the confetti-filled Summit Arena court.

A controversial move to fire and hire a head coach mid-season had paid off. But more importantly for him, a storied program that had fallen so far in the past two years was finally back to relevance.

“This was our plan,” he said. “You don’t always know that a plan’s going to work out like you want it to, but this one has, and they’re not through yet. I do not discount what could be possible going forward next week with us. But more importantly than that, what lies ahead for the next few years is just really energizing.

“We’re back.”