Even after a heartbreaking loss in the final seconds, freshman guard Derrick Gordon said Saturday night’s game was the most fun he’s had in his first season at WKU.
And as the Toppers exited the floor after a 67-65 loss to Troy, their heads hanging from defeat, the crowd of 5,172 stood to cheer, and they cheered loud.
More than 3,000 more fans were in attendance at Diddle arena Saturday than were at Thursday’s game against Louisiana-Lafayette, accounting for the largest home crowd this season.
They were there to see a new era begin — the Ray Harper era.
“It’s crazy. It was fun,” Gordon said of the crowd. “There was so many people there. I got hyped and my whole team got hyped from the fans coming out to support Coach Harper. We really fed off the crowd the whole game.
“I would love to have that crowd every game.”
Harper and WKU’s other coaches were greeted with a loud standing ovation when they took the court for the first time Saturday night.
The applause lasted nearly an entire 15 seconds until Harper reached the other end of the floor.
“Oh, unbelievable,” Harper said of the crowd. “Thank everyone that was here. That was an unbelievable crowd and the energy and I thought our guys put on a great show for them.”
The Toppers showcased the tough effort that Harper, coaching on Saturday in his first game as WKU’s head coach after Ken McDonald was fired Friday, promised would be present when he was introduced as interim head coach on Friday.
WKU responded from a 14-point deficit to eventually tie the game at 62, getting the Diddle Arena crowd on its feet and the loudest it had been all game.
And Diddle had been plenty loud nearly the entire game.
They erupted when Gordon skied in to take a rebound away from two players, then made shot fake to get by a defender for an easy layup that tied the game at 30 in the first half, minues after WKU trailed 28-23.
Gordon followed that up with a steal just before the half and attempted a buzzer-beater that went off the mark. But he was able to smile about it, because WKU had a 36-30 lead at halftime, and he was having fun, and so was the crowd.
As the team sprinted toward the locker rooms, the crowd showed its appreciation for the team’s renewed effort, much the same way they did when when Harper and the other coaches took the floor before the game.
“We expected when we signed up to come here that this was the environment at Western Kentucky,” freshman forward Vinny Zollo said. “It’s kind of the norm around here, and that hasn’t been the case this year. For us to see that crowd and to vibe off the crowd in pivotal moments of the game was huge for us.”
The start of the second half didn’t bring the same fuzzy feeling that the first half did, at least not right away. Troy opened the second half on a 25-6 run to take a 55-42 lead with 11:26 left to play.
The Toppers were in desperate need of some offense and needed to recover the mojo they had in the first half.
It finally came with just over 10 minutes left to play in the form of two free throws from Zollo, who finished with 11 points and three rebounds.
The Toppers then put together a 10-3 run to make it a 58-52 game with seven minutes to play, and the crowd was once again back on its feet, and loud.
But still, Troy wasn’t ready to fold, despite the momentum sliding increasingly in WKU’s favor.
Troy’s Ray Chambers scored and got fouled, pushing Troy’s lead to five, 60-55.
Freshman guard Kevin Kaspar then hit a three-pointer to cut the lead back to two until Troy’s Steven Cunningham scored on a tip-in and was fouled.
The crowd was ready to blow the roof off the building once WKU finally overcame the deficit, but Troy answered nearly every one of the Toppers’ baskets.
Freshman forward George Fant fought his way for a defensive rebound, ferociously pulling it away from a Troy player and drawing a foul. Once again, the larger-than-normal Diddle crowd stood and cheered as Fant paced down to the other end of the court and knocked down two free throws to tie the game at 62-62.
After Troy scored three straight points, WKU forced two straight turnovers — a shot clock violation and an out of bounds call — then Gordon found junior guard Jamal Crook under the basket for a game-tying layup to make it a 65-65 game.
But the storybook ending on a momentous night for WKU basketball history was not meant to be, as Owens hit a five-footer to give Troy the win.
Harper was still plenty pleased.
“I thought we played extremely hard and competed,” Harper said. “I thought I needed to put them in a better situation to win the game right there at the end. I thought we had some really good looks at the start of the second half, we just couldn’t get the ball to go in the hole, and that’s going to happen.
“The thing I was most proud of, when we got down 14, or 13, or whatever it was, we just kept competing and kept fighting and next thing you know we’re right there with a chance to win the game.”
Gordon said it was because of Harper that WKU was even in the game.
“Two weeks ago, just like Coach Harper said in the locker room, we would’ve put our heads down when we started losing by a big margin,” he said. “But we didn’t, we kept fighting and we came back. We had a lot of opportunities to win the game.
“This loss is going to hurt, but at the end of the day, we gotta move on and get ready for next Thursday.”
Crook, who finished with 12 points and four rebounds, said part of the reason that WKU played so well was because they didn’t miss a beat with Harper at the helm.
He said in practices, McDonald handled one team — the “Red” team, while Harper handled another — the “Black” team.
He said the only difference tonight was that Harper was the head coach, not McDonald.
“In practice, Coach ‘Harp’ doesn’t change up anything. It’s the same thing,” Crook said. “It felt like being on the Black Team. It really wasn’t no big thing him being the head coach. It really wasn’t nothing major.”
The Toppers were led in scoring by Gordon, who finished with 16 points and grabbed six rebounds — nearly all of which were hard-fought.
The game was won in the paint, where Troy outscored WKU 40-26.
But WKU held Troy, who came into the game shooting 40 percent from three-point range, to just 6-of-20 from the beyond the arc (30 percent).
Troy also had four scorers in double figures, led by Justin Wright’s 17 points.
Now 0-1 in his head coaching career at WKU, Harper said he still has plenty to look forward to with this team, and plenty to work on still.
“You’re never going to be the basketball team you can be, but you’re gonna lay it on the line — not each night — but each possession,” he said. “We’re close. We’ve got to get there.
“There were some times where we maybe said, ‘OK, this possession defensively is not as important.’ They’re all important. Our guys will get there because they want to get there, they want be be a good basketball team and we will.”