WKU beats rival MTSU in front of sold-out Diddle

WKU celebrates with senior guard Kahlil McDonald (middle) at the end of Saturday’s Senior Night game at Diddle Arena. McDonald scored the last basket of the game to help WKU edge out MTSU, 73-67 in front of a sellout crowd of 7,326 fans.

Cole Claybourn

When WKU went down 10-0 early on in Saturday’s contest against Middle Tennessee State, Head Coach Ray Harper said he wasn’t worried.

It was something he prepared for, and in fact, almost expected.

“I said, ‘Look guys, we may get down 10-0, who knows, but we’re not going to change,’ Harper said. “Lo and behold I look up and we’re down 10-0.

“I did tell them, ‘It doesn’t matter, we’re still going to win the game.’ I felt pretty good about that part.”

WKU stuck to its gameplan and used a dominating second half to earn arguably its biggest win of the season, 73-67 over MTSU, in front of 7,326 fans in a sold-out Diddle Arena crowd.

It was WKU’s (11-18, 7-9 Sun Belt Conference) fifth straight home win and its second straight since Harper was named the team’s full-time head coach on Sunday.

WKU opened the second half on 10-0 run that was later answered by a 7-0 MTSU (25-5, 14-2) run to make it a 40-40 game.

From there, it was a see-saw battle for most of the second half. 

The Blue Raiders scored four quick points to take a 50-46 lead with 10:18 left to play before a 3-pointer from freshman guard T.J. Price tied the game at 51.

About a minute later, junior center Teeng Akol picked up a loose ball and scored to give WKU a 53-51 lead with 7:26 left.

Now all WKU had to do was close out the game.

Akol buried a one of his two 3-pointers to give WKU a 62-53 lead, then capped off an 11-4 run to make it a 64-55 lead.

But freshman forward George Fant, who played just four minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, picked up his fourth foul with 3:28 left to play and allowed MTSU center LaRon Dendy to hit two free throws.

Unfortunately for league leader MTSU, those were Dendy’s first two points of the second half. The Blue Raider star finished with 18 points in the second half after scoring 11 in the first half.

“We said at the half, ‘We’re not letting LaRon Dendy beat us,’ Harper said. “He is a terrific player. Potential NBA guy. George and Teeng were battling in there, (sophomore forward) O’Karo (Akamune) came in there and did a terrific job.

“I thought it was important that we make someone else beat us if they were gonna beat us.”

Dendy scored and got fouled, but couldn’t make the free throw. But he had brought MTSU to within four, 68-64.

After junior guard Jamal Crook made one of two free throws, Blue Raider guard Raymond Cintron hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 69-67.

Suddenly, with 21.8 left to play, WKU’s comfortable lead had diminished and the Toppers were in danger of a disappointing home loss.

But a couple of free throws from freshman guard Derrick Gordon, an MTSU turnover, and a layup from senior guard Kahlil McDonald put the seal on a signature win for WKU.

“I guess it’s a blessing,” McDonald said on scoring the last basket of the game on his Senior Night. “There was a loose ball and I was the only one down there. It was a blessing. I just thank God that I’m in this position in the first place. That’s the main thing.”

Harper, of course, was just happy to see his team close out the game.

“In our last 10 games, I really believe we should’ve been 9-1,” Harper said. “The only game where I felt like, ‘OK, they won the game’ was at Middle Tennessee (a 72-64 loss on Feb. 9). Every other game we just didn’t understand how to close yet. We didn’t know how to finish yet.

“We’re getting there. We still made some mistakes, but they’re starting to really believe. Winning helps.” 

WKU earned the win on the defensive end, forcing MTSU into 19 turnovers which were turned into 34 points.

Four WKU players ended up in double figures, led by Price’s 13 points.

Dendy’s 18 points led MTSU.

After the game, Harper addressed the crowd and said “Diddle Arena is alive.” He thanked the fans for their devotion and declared, “we’ve only just begun.”

“The fans have been terrific,” he said after the game. “We ended the season this year with 7,326 (fans). Let’s start the season that way or if we can get another one in there, let’s get another one. Each and every game let it be that many or more.”

McDonald said Harper’s “we’ve only just begun” message meant the team has business to do — win the Sun Belt Tournament.

With the win, WKU assured itself the No. 7 seed in next weekend’s Sun Belt Tournament in Hot Springs, Ark.

Price said the team will have to be mentally tough to win the tournament, where the Toppers will have to win four games in four days.

“…Four games back-to-back is going to be hard for us,” he said. “We’ve just got to be mentally tough and play defense — that’s the keys for us right now.”