WKU all smiles after beating Sun Belt leader Arkansas-Little Rock

Freshman guard T.J. Price collides with UALR freshman forward Taggart Lockhart while attempting to make a shot in the first half of the game. WKU won 65-53.

Cole Claybourn

As streamers fell from the Diddle Arena rafters after WKU’s 65-53 win over Arkansas-Little Rock Saturday, freshman guard Derrick Gordon’s smile spanned from ear-to-ear as he ran over to give a fist bump and a hug to WKU radio analyst Hal Schmitt. 

Meanwhile interim head coach Ray Harper ran over to the stands to high five WKU band members and celebrate his first win as a Division I head coach.

Harper was greeted in the locker room with a surprise, junior guard Jamal Crook awarding him with the game ball.

An announced total of 4,235 fans showed up Saturday to see Harper’s second home game and fouth overall at the helm, hopeful the two weeks he’d spent with the team since his promotion on Jan. 6 would breed results against the defending Sun Belt Conference champion.

And after seeing his team go on a 21-4 run to win the game and snap a five-game losing streak, Harper put the spotlight on his players.

“They needed it,” Harper said. “You don’t understand how resilient this group has been. That says a lot to me about their character, their heart…I’ve told them, ‘I’ve lost before and I’ll lose again.’ This is not about me, this is about them.

“We’re going to do it the right way, we’re gonna do it together. For them to walk in that locker room to see those smiles and for them to say, ‘Hey, all this work we put in, it was worth it.’ Winning is a lot more fun than losing, but there’s a price to be paid to win. We were able to get one today.”

Gordon, who finished with 13 points and five rebounds, carried that smile into the postgame press conference.

“It’s just exciting. I love winning,” he said. “We haven’t been winning in a while, but to get that first victory under our belt — I’m speechless. I’m just so happy for myself and for my teammates and definitely for Coach Harper because that’s his first win.

“I just want to keep winning more because I love winning, I like smiling, I like seeing my teammates smile. We just gotta continue doing what we was doing.”

In many games this year, the final stretches of games have not been kind to the Toppers (6-14, 2-5 Sun Belt Conference).

WKU blew a double-digit lead earlier in the season to VCU and ended up losing the game.

In Dencember against nationally-ranked Louisville, WKU went scoreless for almost seven minutes down the stretch to cough up an eight point lead and lose by 10.

But things were different Saturday.

UALR’s D’Andre Williams scored with 7:12 left to give the Trojans a 49-44 lead — their largest of the game.

That was the last time UALR (8-13, 5-2) scored for nearly six minutes.

Senior guard Kahlil McDonald hit a three-pointer — one of WKU’s six on the day — with 4:49 left to spark a decisive 13-0 run.

Crook scored on two straight possessions, then found freshman George Fant under the basket for an easy layup after a nifty spin move to get past a defender.

Seemingly everything fell into place for WKU from then on.

The Toppers attacked the defensive boards and seldom allowed UALR to take more than one shot, while their own shots kept falling.

WKU also made all eight of its free throws in the final two minutes.

“Before the game we talked about toughness and how we were going to be the tougher team in the last six minutes of the game,” said Fant, who finished with 12 points and six rebounds in 31 minutes of play. “As you guys have seen, we came out the tougher team.”

The first half went differently, at least at the end.

Freshman guard Kevin Kaspar pulled up to take a three-pointer at the buzzer and hurt his left knee in the process.

He was helped off the court and sat out the second half because of what was diagnosed as a sprained knee.

Kaspar underwent an MRI after the game, the results of which won’t be determined until Sunday at the earliest, according to WKU Media Relations.

One bright spot in the first half though was freshman forward Vinny Zollo, who hit two three-pointers, including one from the edge of the red towel logo.

He finished with nine points and four rebounds in 30 minutes of play.

“We ran a couple plays out of timeouts by design to try and get Vinny some threes because I felt like if we could him an open look, he’d make some,” Harper said.

WKU trailed 28-27 at halftime but responded by outscoring UALR by 13 in the second half. It was just the second time this season that WKU won after trailing at halftime, improving to 2-14 in that category.

Fant said the Toppers might have hit a turning point with Saturday’s win.

“When we left Denver, we got everything cleaned up,” Fant said. “Coach Harper said he wants to just clean the slate and come back here and just start working and get the victory over Little Rock and keep it moving from there.”

With students arriving back on campus over the last few days, the student section was noticeably larger than it has been lately.

Fant said the larger crowd helped give an extra boost to the team.

“Coming from few people in the crowds first couple of games to every night it’s almost packed out — you just have the whole arena screaming for you,” he said. “It definitely helped on our run we took toward the end, gave us more energy.”

Fant pointed to a play during WKU’s run where he stepped into the passing lane and started a 3-on-1 fast break that resulted in a Crook layup and said that was a direct result of the crowd’s energy rubbing off on him.

That was one of 17 turnovers forced by WKU. The Toppers scored 23 points off those turnovers.

Conversely, WKU turned the ball over just nine times and finished with 13 assists. 

“I think it’s a must for good basketball teams to get good shots, hit easy buckets because of your defense,” Harper said. “I think two ways we get easy baskets is because of our defense creating bad shots that will lead us to some transition baskets getting out and running — we got some of those today.

“You must be able to grind it out, which we did in the last six minutes. We wanto to be that basketball team that can play anyway you want to play. You want to play real fast? We can play that way. You want to grind it out? We’re a better team grinding it out than you. This was just the first step against a very good basketball team. We must continue to grow.”