Men’s Basketball Notes: WKU preparing for ‘tough’ UALR team in second round

Freshman guard Derrick Gordon prepares to shoot a free throw at the Sun Belt Tournament against FIU on Saturday, March 3 in Hot Springs, Ark. Gordon scored nine points to help WKU win 67-63. 

Cole Claybourn

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — In Head Coach Ray Harper’s eyes, WKU became “a tougher team” on Jan. 21 when it ousted Arkansas-Little Rock at Diddle Arena 65-53.

It was a game of runs in which WKU finally put the Trojans away with a 21-4 run to end a five-game losing streak.

Harper expects nothing short of yet another tough matchup in Sunday’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament second round game against UALR.

“They’re going to defend you extremely hard,” he said. “One of the premier young players in the league in Will Neighbor. (Michael) Javes has really come on strong late in the season…It’s a team that’s coming off an NCAA Tournament, so we’ll have to be at our best. I think our kids will respond.

“We must do a good job of executing in the half court. It will settle into a half court game tomorrow night both ways.”

The Toppers will face a team that has won three out of its last four games heading into the tournament.

Toughness shouldn’t be an issue if WKU plays like it did against Florida International in the first round, senior guard Kahlil McDonald said.

“It shows the toughness that we’ve had all season,” McDonald said of WKU’s 67-63 win. “We’ve been through adversity all season. I think it just shows how tough we are.”

Freshmen work out jitters

The stat sheet might not show it, but there was a time when WKU’s youth proved to be a problem in Saturday’s contest.

It was about midway through the second half when FIU stormed back on a 17-4 run to take a five-point lead.

But thanks to the clutch play of a few freshmen, namely guard Derrick Gordon who had a blocked shot and two made free throws down the stretch, WKU escaped its first round match-up against FIU to keep its season alive.

Harper said Saturday’s game was important to get the younger players their first postseason win in college.

“I think it will help. I really do,” Harper said. “I think you could see a little bit of the nervousness. Most of these guys have been in big games, but it’s still their first college atmosphere as far as a college tournament. You win and advance or you lose and go home.”

The five freshmen who played combined for 30 points, with guard T.J. Price scoring 11 points. Gordon nearly missed a double-double with nine points and 10 rebounds.

Harper called Gordon “Old Reliable” because he always knows the type of production he’ll get out of his third team all-Sun Belt selection.

Senior guard Kahlil McDonald was especially impressed by Gordon down the stretch.

“It’s always good — I know a lot of guys get nervous around this time. He didn’t,” McDonald said. “He stepped up really big. That’s what he’s been doing all year and that’s what we expected of him.”

Fant OK after ankle injury

WKU was hit by a double-whammy midway through the second half Saturday night.

FIU’s Jeremy Allen hit a 3-pointer to give FIU a 50-47 lead — its first lead of the game. Meanwhile, freshman forward George Fant was on the ground favoring his right ankle.

He was helped off the court by trainer Mike Gaddie, and after a re-wrap of his ankle, he was back in and ready to go.

Harper said after Saturday’s game that he expects Fant to be fine come Sunday.

“Mike Gaddie stopped me on the way out and told me he will have him 100 percent tomorrow, so I trust him,” he said.