WKU must win Sun Belt to stay alive

The WKU men’s basketball team celebrates with senior guard Kahlil McDonald (middle) after McDonald scored the final basket of Saturday’s senior night game against MTSU at Diddle Arena. WKU beat MTSU 73-67 in front of a sellout crowd of 7,326.

Cole Claybourn

WKU’s 73-67 win over Middle Tennessee State on Saturday did a couple things for the Toppers.

It meant WKU (11-18, 7-9 Sun Belt Conference) will enter the Sun Belt Tournament in Hot Springs, Ark., on Saturday as the No. 7 seed instead of the projected No. 8 seed.

It also puts the Toppers on the opposite end of the bracket as No. 1 seed MTSU, meaning the two East Division rivals wouldn’t meet until a potential championship game.

But to win the league title, WKU will have to win four games in four days. And for a team that hasn’t won more than two games in a row all season, it’s going to take mental toughness, freshman guard T.J. Price said.

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

WKU will play Florida International at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday in Summit Arena in the first round of the tournament.

The Toppers split the season series against the Panthers, falling 81-63 in Diddle Arena on Dec. 31 before beating FIU 61-51 on Jan. 28 in Miami.

For many of the players, this weekend’s Sun Belt Tournament will be their first.

Only four active WKU players (others are out due to injuries) have any experience in the Sun Belt Tournament.

But Price, as has been said time and again this season, spoke on behalf of the freshmen and said the inexperience in Hot Springs won’t be a factor.

“We haven’t spoke about being young since last year,” he said. “There’s no more young players. All of us is playing like we’ve been in this position before already.

“There’s no more young players on the team, no more freshmen. Even though the paper says, we’re not playing like it.”

But it will be senior guard Kahlil McDonald’s final Sun Belt Tournament, and he already has a sense of urgency about him.

“I know it’s my last, but I want to go out with a bang — like I told you before, I want a ring,” he said. “That’s the main goal right now is getting a ring.

“We’ve got four games — we just have to go in there and be mentally tough. Coach always puts emphasis on us being a defensive team and a rebounding team. That’s what we did (Saturday), and that’s what’s going to help us going into Hot Springs.”

Head Coach Ray Harper downplayed the notion that four games in four days will be a unique challenge for the Toppers.

“They’ll be happier they’re playing four games in four days rather than four practices in four days, I promise you that,” Harper said. “The games will be much easier than some of the practices they’ve been through.

“That’s why we do it. It’s a grind, and we push our guys because if we’re going to win, you must be mentally tough. You can’t worry about those types of things. Players want to play, so let’s play.”