WKU rallies from 13 down to knock off No. 2 seed UALR

The Toppers celebrate after beating No. 2 seed Arkansas-Little Rock 68-63. WKU moves on to face Denver in the Sun Belt Tournament Semifinals at 8:30 p.m. on Monday.

Cole Claybourn

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Derrick Gordon laughed and shook his head as he tried to explain the final six minutes of WKU’s 68-63 quarterfinal win over Arkansas-Little Rock.

No. 7 seed WKU had missed 20 free throws, shot 38 percent for the game and found itself down 13 with less than nine minutes to play in front of what was essentially a home crowd for the No. 2 seed Trojans.

Still, WKU — behind 25 points and 15 rebounds from Gordon — slowly clawed its way back, forcing turnover after turnover, blocking shot after shot during a 17-0 run on its way to earning its eighth straight appearance in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament semifinals — tying a league record set by Alabama-Birmingham.

More importantly, the gutsy comeback kept WKU’s suddenly turned-around season alive.

“We’re not going home. We just kept fighting,” Gordon said, to which freshman forward George Fant interjected “yeah, definitely.” “We knew it was going to be a hard-fought game. We just kept fighting and fighting. It didn’t matter if they were up by 20, we were going to keep fighting. We just pulled away.”

Head Coach Ray Harper simply called it a “great college basketball game.”

“Our kids were resilient once again,” he said. “Just when you thought it was about to get away from us, we made a run. We wouldn’t quit.”

WKU missed several chances to tie or take lead in the second half and eventually allowed UALR to go on an 8-0 run to go up 51-39 midway through the half.

Then after two missed free throws by sophomore forward O’Karo Akamune and a turnover by Gordon, UALR’s Chuck Guy scored to give the Trojans a 56-45 lead with 5:51 left.

But that’s when Fant said he noticed a change in UALR’s body language.

“Yeah, definitely. They started rushing things,” he said. “Early in the game, we were getting frustrated because we were turning the ball over and getting our shot blocked. We were moving too fast.

“But those last six minutes, they started turning the ball over and they started speeding up and turning the ball over even more. It just helped us out more.”

Harper said a big key was changing from a man-to-man to a zone defense.

“I knew they were drawing up something to attack it, but we felt like we could turn them over,” he said. “They were starting to look a little fatigued. Like I said, I’ve got a group of guys that are resilient and they’re going to keep fighting, like Derrick said.”

UALR Head Coach Steve Shields said it was indeed WKU’s press that changed the course of the game, as well as WKU’s ability to crash the boards.

The Toppers out-rebounded the Trojans 49-36.

“During that stretch we didn’t handle the press like we needed too and I felt like we handled their press earlier when they had gone to it and gotten out of it,” he said. “The biggest concern coming into tonight was rebounds. They’re a great offensive rebounding team and as I said earlier they got 19 offensive rebounds last night, had a 19-4 advantage in second chance points and tonight they had an 11-4 advantage in second chance points.

“We struggled to guard in the second half without fouling. They were 3-for-11 from the foul line in the first half and we struggled to guard the basketball off the dribble in the second half.”

A layup by junior guard Jamal Crook, a 3-pointer from senior guard Kahlil McDonald and and steal and layup by Gordon quickly made it a 56-52 game with 4:44 left to play.

A minute later, Gordon buried an 18-footer and Crook took a charge, bringing the group of WKU fans that made the trip to Hot Springs to their feet.

Gordon then hit two free throws at the 3:13 mark to give WKU its first lead of the game — 57-56.

The Toppers made enough plays down the stretch and Fant came up with a few timely blocks to send the No. 2 seeded Trojans home.

Harper explained Gordon’s performance like he did after WKU’s first round game, calling him “Old Reliable.”

“You find out in big games about big-time players,” he said. “You’ve all seen them if you’ve covered sports. You’ve seen big-game players. They like the limelight. The bigger the stage, the better they like it.”

But Harper called Akamune the “unsung hero” of the game. He played 15 minutes and scored just two points, but that didn’t matter to Harper.

“I looked down — (Courtney) Jackson had scored twice in a row — I looked to the end of the bench and he says ‘Coach, I promise you I can guard him,” Harper said.

So Harper said to Akamune, “Go get him.”

“That’s as simple as it was,” he said. “That’s how he went in the game. I knew he was ready and he played tremendous once again.”

WKU now gets a chance at Denver in the semifinals at 8:30 p.m. on Monday at Summit Arena.

It’s a rematch against a team that the Toppers lost to 78-65 on Jan. 15 in Denver.

And after two games in two days — one that required a significant comeback — fatigue could prove to be an issue.

But don’t tell that to Harper.

“You guys worry about that,” he said. “Trust me, we’re not worried about fatigue. Our guys will be ready to roll. I told you before we left that our guys will be much happier they’re playing four games in four days than having four practices in four days.

“If you’ve been to one of our practices, I promise you it’s much tougher than what’s getting ready to happen (Monday) night at 8:30.”