Going Dancing: WKU completes improbable run to earn NCAA Tournament berth

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

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Young. Inexperienced. Improbable.

All are words some have used to described this year’s WKU team.

Now the Toppers can add one more adjective in front of their names: Champions.

WKU completed what is arguably one of the most improbable runs in college basketball history, winning four games in four days to win the Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship with a 74-70 win over North Texas, earning its first NCAA Tournament berth since the 2008-2009 season.

“A fiction writer couldn’t have written a better script,” WKU President Gary Ransdell said.

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

For the second time in the tournament, WKU responded from a 13-point deficit to win the game in the final seconds.

And as the confetti rained down on the dogpiling Toppers, a moment occurred that the players simply couldn’t explain.

“This season’s been unbelievable,” freshman forward George Fant said. “A coaching change and all these freshmen coming and coming out here and playing so hard for coach ‘Harp,’ everyone stepping up for us. Everyone was down on us before we got here. They was saying we wasn’t old enough, mature enough, we couldn’t guard some of the people that we obviously guarded here.

“It speaks for itself. As far as my emotions when the confetti popped out, I couldn’t even tell you right now. It was just tremendous. I’m so happy.”

It was a run that overwhelmed Harper.

“I need a day off,” he joked after the game. “I’m just happy for these young men. We’ve put in a lot of hard work. There were days when I told them, ‘I know you think I’m crazy because of how hard we’re working, but we’re preparing ourselves for an opportunity that’s gonna present itself here in a couple months.’

“Give them credit, they bought in to what we were telling them. I knew when we left Bowling Green, Ky., and I’ve said this to you guys 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.”

The game was in the balance for the entire first half and for the first five minutes of the second half. Then North Texas went on an 8-0 run and eventually took a 55-42 lead.

But just like it did when down 13 to Arkansas-Little Rock two games before, WKU clawed its way back by feeding tournament Most Outstanding Player George Fant down low and using a career night from junior center Teeng Akol.

Akol finished with 23 points and five rebounds in undoubtedly his best performance of the season.

He told Harper Monday night that he would have a big game.

“It was meant to be,” he said. “Last game I didn’t play pretty well. Before I went to sleep I talked to my sister who was like, ‘Just go out there and have fun.’ So I just went in there and had fun.”

Minutes after Akol’s dunk, WKU had spun off a 9-0 run to get back into the game.

And with an emphatic put-back dunk by Akol to cut the lead to 59-57, WKU had made it clear it wasn’t going out without one last fight.

Trailing 68-67, freshman guard Derrick Gordon nearly lost a loose ball near midcourt. But the Toppers’ lone senior, Kahlil McDonald, picked up the ball and buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give WKU a 70-68 with just over a minute left.

“Ever since I was young I’ve just liked to take big shots and I had the opportunity and knocked it down,” McDonald said. “I thank God for that once again. When opportunity knocks, you’ve got to open the door, you’ve got to take advantage.”

Still, the door was left open for North Texas. After coming up with a crucial block seconds before, freshman guard Derrick Gordon fouled North Texas’ Brandan Walton shooting a 3.

Walton made his first two free throws and missed the third on purpose in hopes that Mitchell would grab the rebound and give North Texas a chance to tie or take the lead. But sophomore forward O’Karo Akamune blocked Mitchell out to grab the rebound. Akamune passed to McDonald who was fouled.

Then the senior from Brooklyn, N.Y. calmly knocked down two free throws to seal the win and the school’s 22nd NCAA Tournament appearance.

“Speechless and excited and just thanking God,” McDonald said of the win. “Without Him, we couldn’t do it. Hard work plays a part and so does resiliency and toughness. We were down 13 again and came back and won. I just give all the glory to God.”

And so it was — a fairytale story that has at least one more chapter to it.

It brought Ransdell to tears on the floor. And Athletics Director Ross Bjork, who made one of the most controversial moves of the year by firing Ken McDonald mid-season and hiring Harper as the permanent coach, got validation for his move.

Harper became just the third coach in NCAA history to take over a team mid-season and guide them to the NCAA Tournament.

“This is all about the players. I’m so proud of these guys for what they went through and the coaches, they stuck together really,” Bjork said. “We did it because of these guys and for no other reason.

“What you look for is improvement each step of the way. Our RPI was at 250-plus on Jan. 6 (when Harper was hired). Today it was in the 190s. Coach (Harper) went 10-7, won six games in a row, he’s undefeated as a permanent head coach. It’s a testament to Ray. The guy has a plan, he knows how to work with the kids, to inspire them. These guys had it in them, they just had to get the right person to get it out of them.”

For the freshmen on the team, it was exactly what they signed up for.

“Before I came to Western Kentucky, me and Derrick Gordon had conversations a lot,” Fant said. “Our main goal was to get to the tournament. That was our main goal. Get here and get to the tournament.

“Soon as we got our new head coach and got to working and seen how better we started getting over a couple weeks, I just knew it. I just knew it we were going to get here and show what we had. That’s what we did.”

The duo teamed up to earn All-Tournament honors. Gordon joined McDonald on the All-Tournament team while Fant was named the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. It was the first time a freshman won the award since Bo McCallebb of New Orleans won in 2004.

Now WKU will likely head to Dayton to play in the NCAA Tournament’s First Four as a No. 16 seed, where the Toppers will play for the right to play a No. 1 seed in the Field of 64.

So it’s back to being an underdog, a role this bunch has come to embrace.

“It doesn’t really matter,” Crook said. “We’ve always been the underdog,” he said. “We’re willing to fight and do whatever it takes to get the victory, no matter what.”

It certainly doesn’t matter to Harper.

“I’ll tell you this — wherever we’re seeded, those higher seeded teams, they could get a lot better draw than playing us right now,” he said. “We’ve won six in a row. We’re not going to back down from anyone. We’ll respect whomever we play, but we’re not going to fear anyone.”