COLUMN: Toppers fight to stay alive, once again

Head coach Ray Harper shouts instructions to his team during the second half of their game against Mississippi Valley State at the University of Dayton Arena on Tuesday night. WKU have back to win 59-58.

Brad Stephens

DAYTON, Ohio — The fun should’ve all finally ended on Thursday.

Instead it’ll keep on rolling, for at least one more game.


WKU has had its fan base reaching for the TUMS the past two weeks, riding a string of comebacks to a Sun Belt Conference Tournament title and bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Little did Topper fans realize they had one more in store, and that this one was the best of them all.

Down 53-37 to fellow No. 16 seed Mississippi Valley State with less than five minutes left, WKU came out of nowhere with a 22-5 rally to seal a 59-58 win in University of Dayton Arena.

The win sends the Toppers into a matchup on Thursday with overall No. 1 seed Kentucky.

And it leaves the Delta Devils scratching their heads, wondering how they became WKU’s latest comeback victim.

“We absolutely dominated them for 35 minutes and let it slip out of our hands,” MVSU Head Coach Sean Woods said after the game.

For a team playing its first NCAA Tournament game since 2009, the Toppers were pretty much lifeless for most of the night.

They turned the ball over 28 times. When they didn’t turn the ball over, they shot 30.6 percent from the floor, including 12.5 percent from the perimeter. They got beat consistently on defense, especially by guard Kevin Burwell (20 points).

And so it looked like that was how the season was going to end, with WKU laying an NCAA egg after fighting so hard to get there.

Freshman guard T.J. Price said he couldn’t have handled the feeling had that been the outcome.

“Personally I know I would’ve cried, personally, that’s just how much I love the game,” Price said. “And I just didn’t want to be one and done.”

Luckily for Price, he plays for a coach who won’t let his team give up until the final buzzer.

“We’re going to believe until the bitter end,” Head Coach Ray Harper said. “And I think if you’re a coach or you’re a player that doesn’t believe that, you’re in the wrong profession.”

So Harper reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out the one arrow he hadn’t shot: a full-court man-to-man press.

The extra pressure led to three WKU steals between the 2:59 and 2:22 marks of the second half.

Suddenly MVSU was the team looking frazzled, while the Toppers looked like a team used to living life on the edge.

Two minutes later WKU was the improbable winner.

Resiliency, toughness and all those words have been used to describe the team over the last two weeks.

But perhaps the word that best fit the team on Tuesday was “opportunistic.”

They trailed by 16 late. They should’ve trailed by far more.

Were it not for rebounding (60-32 in favor of WKU) and MVSU’s 45.5 percent free throw shooting, the Toppers would’ve been too far out of reach to make the comeback.

But that’s where a tough team like WKU takes advantage of the situation.

The Toppers saw an opening that had been left for them, and they walked right through it.

We’ll see how many of those opportunities present themselves on Thursday in Louisville, when ultimate-underdog WKU faces the nation’s best, Kentucky.

It may be the Toppers stretching the UK defense out with some 3-point shots.

It may be junior point guard Jamal Crook giving Wildcat counterpart Marquis Teague some extra defensive pressure.

It may be freshman forward George Fant getting Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Anthony Davis in foul trouble.

The Toppers’ ability to take advantage of any combination of good breaks could give them the chance to at least make things interesting.

WKU may or may not win on Thursday.

But knowing the team and knowing its coach, they’ll fight until the final buzzer sounds.

Another classic may just be in store.