Junior guard Jamal Crook said he was just playing basketball.
On the stat sheet, he was doing much more.
The point guard previously known only for his game management and passing skills torched the nets for a career-high 24 points on 9-of-10 shooting on Saturday night to lead WKU (8-15, 4-6 Sun Belt Conference) to a 75-66 home win in front of 6,407 fans — the largest home crowd for a Topper game this season.
“I was just taking what they was giving me and I made the best of it,” Crook said.
Crook did more than just score, though.
He dished out six assists, had two steals and pulled down two rebounds.
Interim Head Coach Ray Harper read Crook’s stat line off after the game and shook his head, perhaps in astonishment.
“I told him he played like the best point guard in this conference tonight,” Harper said. “He is our leader right now, no question. That’s why we’re playing like we are right now.”
Crook hit a 17-footer with seconds remaining in the first half to make it a 35-35 game at halftime.
Right out of the gate in the second half, freshman guard T.J. Price hit a three-pointer to give WKU a 38-35 lead. The Toppers never trailed the rest of the way.
South Alabama tried to make a couple of comebacks, cutting the lead to six points twice in the final 10 minutes.
Leading 58-52 with 7:25 left, WKU went on a 12-4 run to take a 70-56 lead. The run was capped off with a nifty cross-over move by Crook that gave him space to drain a three-pointer from the wing.
WKU led by as many as 14 late in the second half.
The first half featured four ties and seven lead changes after both teams went into halftime tied at 35.
WKU started to pick up momentum with just under seven minutes to play when leading scorer Derrick Gordon dove for a loose ball and ended up flying over the scorers table.
Gordon hit his chest hard on the steel bleacher aisles and stayed down for about two minutes. With the help of trainers, he got up and headed to the bench to a standing ovation and the crowd chanting his name.
Crook said he thought Gordon would just get up right away, but when he didn’t he started to get worried.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, hold on,'” Crook said. “I just ran over to see if he was alright. He’s Superman.”
Gordon checked back in about two minutes later and right away blocked a shot. He finished with just four points in 33 minutes.
WKU was paced in the first half by junior center Teeng Akol, who had 10 points, two rebounds and two blocked shots. Akol finished the game 13 points, five rebounds and four blocked shots.
“I’m just trying to do the right thing, you know?” Akol said. “Been practicing hard, just trying to go in there and do the right thing, help the crowd get into it. That’s the main part.”