Young WKU team ‘learning lessons on the job’

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Freshmen guards Kevin Kaspar and Derrick Gordon celebrate with senior guard Jamal Crook after WKU’s 72-67 win over Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday night. The freshman class has accounted for 62 percent of WKU’s scoring through seven games this season. The Toppers face Murray State at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Cole Claybourn

Head Coach Ken McDonald made it clear before the season started that his young team was going to be “thrown to the fire.”

Seven games in, although the results might not show it, McDonald said he’s happy with how his team of seven freshmen and few upperclassmen have handled adversity.

They passed perhaps their biggest test on Saturday night while squeaking out a 72-67 win against visiting Southeastern Louisiana — WKU’s second win of the season, and one against a team with eight upperclassmen.

“It’s not always easy, and we’re learning lessons on the job,” McDonald said after Saturday’s win. “They’re learning how to finish a game out. You got to have some confidence in what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Nothing does it better for your confidence than a win.”

The win came at a good time for the Toppers.WKU had just lost four in a row, including two straight to Virginia Commonwealth. 

The second loss to VCU was a 23-point blowout at home after the Toppers had played the same team closely just three days before, losing by five at the Charleston Classic.

As the losses mounted, so did the frustration for the youthful Toppers, most of whom came to WKU unaccustomed to losing.

“It’s a sick feeling,” freshman guard Derrick Gordon said.

With five losses this season, Gordon has already experienced more losses than he did in his final two seasons at St. Patrick High School (N.J.).

Freshman forward George Fant said the losing streak caused the team to be discouraged but also gave them some motivation.

Fant talked after the second VCU game and after Saturday’s game about focus. Against VCU, he said the team was lacking it.

That wasn’t the case on Saturday.

“We actually focused,” Fant said. “The first practice we had the other day was intense. We went out there and did rebound drills — we also had a little team get together talking about how we need to get better and focus.”

It’s all been a part of this team growing up, and they’ve had to do it fast. At least two freshmen have started every game for WKU and four have started the past three. The freshmen class as a whole has accounted for 62 percent of the team’s scoring.

McDonald said he noticed some of the players, namely Fant, who had to sit out the team’s first four games due to an NCAA rules violation, still had some jitters a few games in. 

McDonald said Fant didn’t have much time to shake off those jitters because he was needed to contribute right away.

“I told him before the game, alone, that I wanted him to have a breakout game,” McDonald said. “I told him, ‘The jitters are gone. You’re not a freshman anymore — start acting like it. I want you to demand the ball, continue to slow down.’”

Fant said he and the other freshmen were on board with that idea.

“I’m telling you, we’re young, but we’re not going to play the young card — not going to play the all-freshmen card,” he said. “We’re going to go out there and play like we know how to play and get more focused.”