WKU can’t respond from 27-point halftime deficit, falls to Denver

WKU can't respond from 27-point halftime deficit, falls to Denver

Cole Claybourn

Interim Head Coach Ray Harper told his team at halftime as WKU trailed Denver by 27 that they better not enter the locker room after the game if they were “out-toughed” in the second half.

The struggling Toppers (5-14, 1-5 Sun Belt Conference) toughened up and outscored the Pioneers by 14 points in the second half, but the 27-point halftime deficit and consistent sharp shooting from Denver was too big of a mountain to climb for WKU as they fell 78-65 in the Mile High City.

WKU has now matched its worst start to a season since the 1976-1977 season.

Harper said he told his team that it better be the last time they’re “out-toughed” because he had “seen it enough.” 

“I don’t want to hear that you’re freshmen or anything like that,” Harper told WKU’s Big Red Radio Network when discussing his halftime message. “You’re all good basketball players, but it’s time to take the next step, quit getting out-toughed and fighting some guys on the glass, fight through some screens.”

It was a struggle offensively for WKU from the get-go. It took the Toppers nearly 6:30 to score and they didn’t reach double digits until there was 4:00 left in the half.

Meanwhile Denver shot 65 percent and forced WKU into seven turnovers to take a 43-16 lead at halftime.

The 27-point lead was Denver’s largest at halftime this season, as well as its highest first half field goal percentage and its most first half points this season.

WKU eventually trailed by as many as 30 early on in the second half, but was able to at least get in one final push.

WKU put together a 7-0 run, which was then answered by two straight three-pointers by Denver.

The Toppers then scored 13 straight points, capped off by two free throws from freshman guard Kevin Kaspar, to cut the lead to 13 — something they did five times in the second half.

But that was as close as WKU got.

Still, Harper was pleased with how his team responded after such a slow start.

“To me, toughness is doing the right thing when it’s hard to do the right thing,” he said. “We saw a little bit of toughness out of our group in the second half.”

WKU has now lost five-straight Sun Belt games for the first time since the 1997-98 season.

After shooting just 6-of-24 in the first half (25 percent), WKU responded in the second half to go 16-for-25 (64 percent). The Toppers also took better care of the ball in the second half, limiting their turnovers to four after seven in the first half.

They finished with a positive assist-to-turonver ratio — 12 to 11 — for the second time this season.

But Denver’s Chris Udofia was too much for WKU. He had 20 points and 11 rebounds — 10 on the defensive end. Three other Pioneers finished in double digits and guard Brian Stafford hit three three-pointers.

Harper spent a lot of the game trying out different combinations to see if something would click.

Harper pointed to a couple of players in particular who provided some spark off the bench — sophomore forward O’Karo Akamune and freshman forward Nigel Snipes, who both played just four minutes against North Texas on Thursday.

Akamune, who has only played in two of the team’s last 10 games, played 15 minutes and scored six points to go along with a career-high eight rebounds. He did so while dealing with a Sickle Cell trait which has a higher risk of affecting someone at the higher levels of elevation Denver presents.

Akamune, like the rest of the team, utilized and oxygen tank when not on the floor to catch his breath.

Snipes played 25 minutes, scoring 10 points and grabbing five rebounds.

Akamune said he was just glad to see the floor.

“I thank God for the opportunity to play,” he said. “Definitely watching and how this season’s been going, it’s hard to watch. But I just stay positive and be ready when the coach calls me.”

WKU now has almost a week off until a home tilt at 1 p.m. Saturday against Arkansas-Little Rock — the Sun Belt representative in last season’s NCAA Tournament.

WKU has gone with the same starting lineup for the past three games, but Harper said that could be changing, saying whoever the best five guys are this week in practice is who will get the start on Saturday.

“We’re going to make changes,” he said. “I don’t know what those changes are going to be, but we’re going to get five guys on the floor at all times that are going to give maximum effort and are going to play with maximum toughness and hopefully maximum execution. Those are the three things that we’ve got to get.”