WKU’s unlikely run continues with upset of No. 3 seed Denver

WKU players celebrate their 67-63 win over Denver in the Sun Belt Tournament semifinals on Monday. WKU will play North Texas at 6 p.m. for a chance to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

Cole Claybourn

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — The miraculous ride continues.

WKU, a team that has experienced a rollercoaster season and was an afterthought by most to win the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and make the NCAA Tournament will have a chance to do both on Tuesday night.

The No. 7 seed Toppers, riding a five-game winning streak — their longest of the year — defeated No. 3 seed Denver 67-63 in the semifinals on Monday at Summit Arena to get a chance to play North Texas in the championship game and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

“I guess it hasn’t really hit me. I think it will hit me some time tonight, probably, when I’m trying to sleep,” freshman forward Vinny Zollo said. “You know, it’s just…the amount of hard work and perseverance I think that we have gone through has brought us together. I don’t even really know what to say.

“As a group, to come out there and regain the lead two times in two different close games and just come together and get this victory, it’s just phenomenal. We’re just coming together more and more every single game and it’s just phenomenal. It’s a phenomenal feeling to be playing (Monday) for a championship.”

WKU has now survived three games that have all gone down to the wire — winning all three by a combined 13 points.

Sunday’s game was a see-saw that came down to WKU getting a crucial block in the game’s final moments — similar to how WKU’s win over UALR unfolded on Sunday.

This time it was freshman guard Derrick Gordon who stuffed Denver guard Royce O’Neale with three seconds left to play after sharp-shooter Brian Stafford missed a 3-pointer that would have given the Pioneers a 66-65 lead.

Senior guard Kahlil McDonald picked up the rebound and knocked down two free throws to seal the win for the Toppers, sending them to their first appearance in the championship game since 2009.

“This tournament has been crazy,” said freshman forward George Fant, who led WKU with 19 points. “Every game has gone down to the wire. We came out the tougher team. That’s one thing before we come out to the game that Coach Harper always, ‘win or lose, I want to come back in the locker room and say I had the tougher team.’ All of these games, that’s what we did — came out the tougher team.”

Denver Head Coach Joe Scott said the Pioneers’ last play was designed to either get Stafford open for a shot or to find forward Chris Udofia inside. They didn’t get the look they wanted so after about 10 seconds, Scott took his last timeout.

“Once we got the ball with the side-out I didn’t think there was enough time any more to go back to that plan,” Scott said. “We have enough side-out-of-bounds to get those two guys in the exact same position with Chris and have those two guys in position… I thought Chris set a really nice pick, Brian didn’t want to shoot it right away, he didn’t know it was that good of a pick I think.

“So in the grand scheme of things I can live with getting Stafford a three and having Udofia rolling to the basket to get an offensive rebound. It just didn’t fall our way there at the end.”

Harper knew Scott was drawing up a play for Stafford, who hit three 3-pointers on Monday.

“We wanted to be aggressive. We did not want to give up a 3-point shot on the last play,” Harper said. “We felt like they were either going to try to slip a ball screen or pin us for a 3, and those were the two areas we were really concentrating on in timeouts.”

It wasn’t meant to be for the Pioneers, who played their last Sun Belt game on Monday. Denver leaves for the Western Athletic Conference next season.

Scott said Denver simply didn’t have an answer for Fant, who scored seven of his 19 points on free throws.

“We didn’t seem to have an answer for (Fant),” he said. “He was really good in there and he played really well and those outside shooters made their threes in the first half and sort of made them feel good and they were able to carry through for the 40 minutes and you’ve got to give them credit for that.”

WKU executed its gameplan, which was to get the ball in the post and get high percentage shots.

And when the Toppers took a 3-pointer, it was a smart shot. WKU took just eight 3-pointers and made five of them, something that Harper said he was pleased with after the game.

Zollo said he and the other post players thought the matchups in the post were in WKU’s favor despite the fact the Toppers were outscored in the post 32-24.

“Coach pretty much just said, we’re going to go inside and get the best shots we possibly can,” he said. “They’re strong as a unit defensively but we felt like there were certain matchups inside where they couldn’t handle us, so we tried to feed George, Teeng (Akol) and myself as much as we possibly could.”

It was good enough for a 56 percent field goal percentage and helped overcome 10 missed free throws.

So now WKU gets a chance to earn an improbable bid in the NCAA Tournament in front of a national audience on ESPN2 at 6 p.m. o n Tuesday against No. 5 seed North Texas and Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Tony Mitchell.

While many might be watching in awe of WKU’s improbable run, Harper isn’t watching anything he didn’t expect.

“Obviously we felt when we left Bowling Green that we were playing our best basketball of the year,” he said. “I know we talked about how we’re going down (to Hot Springs) to win a championship. Our kids believe now.

“I knew when we left Diddle Arena that I had a basketball team that was focused on the task at hand. We were on a business trip. We were so good in practice this week, it was scary. I have not seen us this good… I felt like we had a chance coming in here and that’s about all you can ask this time of year.”