Men’s Basketball Notes: Strong showing against No. 4 Louisville leaves WKU with reason to believe

Freshman forward George Fant fights for a loose ball with Louisville guard Russ Smith. Fant finished with six points and five rebounds as WKU fell to No. 4 Louisville 70-60 at the KFC Yum! Center on Friday. WKU dropped to 4-9 with the loss.

Cole Claybourn

LOUISVILLE  Through its first 12 games, WKU seemed like anything but a team that could hang with the No. 4 team in the country.

But that’s exactly what it did Friday night, losing by just 10 to Louisville  one of the nation’s few remaining unbeaten teams.

After a well-publicized “reset” approach that has undoubtedly gone off course early in the season  evidenced by a 4-8 start with double-digit losses to Tulsa and Furman, Friday’s showing in front of 22,150 fans at the KFC Yum! Center might have given those in doubt a glimpse of what this youthful team of seven freshmen is capable of.

“Sometimes you have to hit a low point to totally understand how to win a basketball game,” Head Coach Ken McDonald said. “We’re talented but we’re young. Even our veteran guys have not played a ton of minutes.

“What I believe we’ve done is put our head down in a couple of games when we got down. Tonight we said ‘I don’t want to see any bad body language. I want to see you guys working hard for each other and if somebody makes a mistake, I want to see four teammates and the bench picking that guy up.”

WKU came in to Friday’s contest with some of the worst numbers in the country. 

The Toppers’ 60 points per game average ranked ranked 311th in the country out 338 Division I teams, while their 38 percent shooting percentage ranked 328th.

Their 10.2 assists per game mark was 316th in the nation and WKU had only scored 70 points or more once this season.

The Toppers improved on all of those stats Friday, and it was enough to convice Louisville Head Coach Rick Pitino that WKU might be a little better than its record suggests.

“They were 4-8 but they played like an 8-4 team, so we have to give them all the credit in the world,” Pitino said. “It really speaks volumes for the program.

“Ken (McDonald) told more before the game that he really has a terrific group of guys. He said he couldn’t say that about last year’s group. It showed tonight. They were 4-8, but they executed very well all the way to the very end of the game.”

Freshman guard Derrick Gordon, who scored 13 points and pulled down nine rebounds in 38 minutes, said despite the loss, there was still some type of moral victory to take from the game as WKU heads into Sun Belt Conference play.

The Toppers open up on the road on Thursday at Louisiana-Monroe.

“It’s probably the only game I’ve seen where we really played together,” he said. “Even though we were losing we were still clapping it up and getting on each other, saying ‘it’s not over.’

“If we keep playing like this, we shouldn’t lose to nobody in our conference.”

Siva silenced

Simply put, Louisville guard Peyton Siva torched WKU in last year’s 114-82 win over the Toppers at Diddle Arena.

He finished with 29 points that game, including four three-pointers.

Perhaps that performance was looming in the back of McDonald’s mind as he prepared his team to guard the former McDonald’s All-American point guard. WKU held Siva  who was averaging just under 10 points per game coming into Friday’s game  to just four points and forced him to turn the ball over six times.

McDonald said last year Siva looked like NBA star Derrick Rose so there was a concerted effort to focus on him.

“Keeping him out of the lane is a chore. He’s a special talent in that area,” he said. “For the most part we did a good job…We wanted to make him make jump shots and hopefully keep the ball of the other shooters’ hands. 

“I thought we did a pretty good job, but it’s really hard to contain him and keep him out of the lane for the whole game.”

Pitino said Siva was simply having a bad night.

“We noticed he has been falling down a lot. That’s something we’ve seen in the past,” he said. “We’ve got to get him to get back to his game right now.”

While Siva struggled, Russ Smith stepped. The sophomore guard out of Briarwood, N.Y., scored 23 points and three assists off the bench, including 14 points in the second half.

Gordon said WKU didn’t step up to the challenge of containing Smith.

“He just has the mindset to score,” he said. “That’s something we could have done a lot better on. We could have helped more off the ball. He’s a great player. I’ve seen him do this a ton of games. This was just one of his nights.”

Behanan wins game, but Fant wins on stat sheet

Former high school rivals George Fant and Chane Behanan exchanged some friendly trash talk this week before Friday’s game.

In a sense, both came away with some bragging rights.

Behanan, a Bowling Green High School alumn, and his Cardinals got the win and remained undefeated  which he said earlier in the week would be the case for Louisville all season. But Fant, a Warren Central High School alum, edged Behanan on the stat sheet.

Behanan went scoreless with seven rebounds and played just three minutes in the second half while Fant scored six points and pulled down five rebounds in 24 minutes.

Pitino was asked if playing WKU and some of his former high school rivals had any impact on his poor play.

“Anybody have any other questions?” Pitino replied. “I’m going to answer intelligent questions. I’m not saying that’s not intelligent, but come on. You’re searching now.”

WKU plays in front of 22,150 fans

By just looking at the crowd, it was hard to tell which fans were at the Yum! Center to cheer for Louisville and who was there to support WKU.

Nonetheless, the 22,150 in attendance made for the fifth largest crowd to watch a WKU game and the largest since 22,876 saw WKU lose to Florida in the 1993 Sweet 16 in Charlotte.

There were 7,326 at Diddle Arena for last year’s matchup between the two schools. 

A new four-year agreement between the two schools will start next year, with that game being played in Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, formerly known as the Sommet Center.

The last time the two schools met there, WKU defeated then No. 3 Louisville 68-54 in front of a crowd of 8,193 fans.

Anyigbo sits with ankle injury

Sophomore forward Kene Anyigbo sat out Friday’s game with what was described as ankle injury that he suffered in practice earlier in the week.

Anyigbo missed some time earlier this season as he battled chest pains and shortness of breath.

He’s averaging 3.4 points and 2.5 rebounds in 12.5 minutes per game.

By the numbers

-WKU’s 60 points per game now ranks 313th in the country.

-The Toppers’ 10.2 assists per game mark remains at 316th in the NCAA.

-At just under 38 percent, WKU’s field goal percentage ranks 331st in the nation.

-WKU’s 35.9 rebounds per game rank 151st in the country.