COULMN: For one night, Diddle was Diddle again

With two-and-a-half minutes left, the crowd at Diddle Arena cheers after WKU scores Saturday. Attendance at the game was a season-high of 5,172. WKU lost the game to Troy 67-65 in Ray Harper’s first game as interim head coach.

Brad Stephens

One stat will be remembered from WKU’s loss to Troy Saturday.

It won’t be the Trojans’ 40-26 edge in the paint, not the Toppers’ 29.2 percent second half shooting, and perhaps not even the 67-65 final score.

No, the number that WKU fans wil be talking about in the coming days is 5,172, which was the official attendance figure in Diddle Arena Saturday.

Thursday night, less than 48 hours before Saturday’s 4 p.m. tip, 1,800 people showed up to the same Diddle Arena to watch the same WKU team take on Louisiana-Lafayette. (The official attendance figure for that game was 2,137, which Athletics Director Ross Bjork admitted Friday was “bumped up.”)

With Friday came the firing of Head Coach Ken McDonald and the interim promotion of assistant Ray Harper.

And with Saturday came an atmosphere Diddle Arena hadn’t seen in a long time.

When the team made its entrance from the locker room behind the “W-K-U” flags as the fight song played, 5,000 people were standing up and cheering.

In weeks past, the sound made when fans clapped along to the beat of “Old Western’s” fight song had been a sort of “pat, pat, pat” getting softer and softer game by game.

But Saturday it sounded like a surround sound drum was being hit, each loud clap reverberating off Diddle’s metal roof.

Then the moment Harper and his assistants walked onto the court for the first time was met with a roar as loud as any in-game action has drawn in Diddle this year.

The fans stayed just as loud after tip-off.

And when the Toppers trailed 58-44 with 10:23 left, the crowd stood up to will WKU back in the game rather than leave the arena or sit on their hands.

The Toppers fell just short in the end, but it wasn’t for lack of effort by their supporters.

It was the kind of crowd that used to be the norm at Diddle Arena, whether in the John Oldham days of the late-1960s, Ralph Willard days of the early-1990s or Darrin Horn days of the 2000s.

It was also the kind of crowd freshman forward Vinny Zollo said he expected when he committed to the tradition-rich Toppers.

“It’s kind of the norm around here and it hasn’t been the case this year,” Zollo said. “For us to see that crowd and vibe off the crowd in pivotal moments of the game was definitely huge for us.”

Fans who attended the game also felt the new buzz in the air.

Bowling Green senior Will Meredith was one of the 5,172 in attendance.

He said Saturday’s game was his first WKU basketball game since his freshman year.

“I’m not going to lie, I did kind of come today to check out the new coach and see what was going to happen,” Meredith said. “We lost, but it was more enjoyable to watch than I remembered.”

Head Football Coach Willie Taggart was in the house, and sensing the extra “juice” in the arena, summed up the thoughts of most long-time Topper basketball fans by saying, “This is how it’s supposed to be.”

Saturday was exactly how Diddle is “supposed to be.”

It’s supposed to be full. It’s supposed to be loud.

It’s supposed to be a cut above the rest of the mostly lifeless arenas in the Sun Belt Conference.

Will it be those things when the Toppers next play there again, two weeks from Saturday against Arkansas-Little Rock?

The novelty of Ray Harper’s “Head Coach” title will have worn off.

And the Toppers, who have tough road tests in the coming week against North Texas and Denver, may lose one or both and be sitting at 2-4 or even 1-5 in league standings.

Will we see 5,000 raucous fans Jan. 21? Or will we see a puny, McDonald- era 2,500?

Hopefully for everyone involved with the program, it’ll be the former.

Topper men’s basketball was fun Saturday, maybe for the first time for a lot of WKU students.

Ray Harper’s team fed off the fans and showed energy, heart and hustle.

Yes, the Toppers came out short in the end.

But if the fans bring the same enthusiasm, dedication, and most importantly, their bodies, to games the rest of the season like they did Saturday, Diddle Arena will be a special place.