Notes: Tops fall flat, but Louisville game draws big crowd

WKU fans in the student section show their disappointment in the Toppers’ performance on Wednesday night against Louisville. Cody Sparks (far right), a senior from Beaver Dam, got to the game at 10 a.m. to get front-row seats. The attendance in Diddle Arena was 7,326.

Zach Greenwell

Wednesday’s game against No. 25 Louisville was one of the most anticipated WKU home games in recent years, and that interest showed in the crowd.

The Toppers’ 114-82 loss drew 7,326 people to Diddle Arena, which impressed Head Coach Ken McDonald.

“I want to thank our fans for coming out,” he said. “I haven’t seen this place like this in a long, long time. There’s no question as a coaching staff and a team that these guys are working hard. They want to make the fans proud, so you missed an opportunity to do that.”

Louisville Head Coach Rick Pitino told reporters earlier in the week that he purposely scheduled the game against WKU to prepare the Cardinals for play in the Big East Conference.

After his team thoroughly handled the Toppers, Pitino said Louisville responded well in its first road test.

“We wanted to match the aggressiveness on offense to really push the pace and get easy shots because we knew it was going to be a great crowd,” Pitino said. “We knew it was going to be a strong home-court advantage, and the only way to take the crowd out of the game was to control the backboard, play good defense and stay aggressive on offense.”

A handful of students lined up outside early Wednesday to get prime seats in the arena. WKU handed out vouchers to 1,500 students for the game several weeks ago.

The crowd remained near capacity even after the Toppers fell behind by a large margin, and it wasn’t until late in the second half that fans started to clear out.

“The crowd was outstanding,” McDonald said. “You could just feel the energy when you walked into the arena. It’s just a great feeling having this place packed, and I know to an extent we let the crowd down, but I hope they don’t give up.”

Sun Belt looming

The loss to Louisville ends what was a rocky non-conference slate for WKU, and the Toppers begin play in the Sun Belt Conference at Arkansas State on Jan. 1.

Even though WKU had its ups and downs in the first half of the season, McDonald said there’s plenty of time to turn it around.

“We have a new slate now with conference starting,” he said. “The reasons we were bad in the non-league and not reaching our potential — we have to correct those mistakes to move forward and have higher expectations for the conference schedule.”

McDonald said WKU still has plenty of room for improvement, especially with teamwork, defense and toughness.

Senior forward Sergio Kerusch said he the Toppers continued to strive for those things against Louisville, even after the Cardinals had all but secured the win.

“What I’m proud about with this team is that we didn’t give up,” Kerusch said. “I feel that we played down to the last minute. We tried to dive and get steals, and in a situation like that, the fact that we still played like we had a chance to win — I think that’s important.”

But McDonald said continuing to fight is only part of the battle. He said WKU will have to avoid falling into a large hole early, or else it will be just as vulnerable in the Sun Belt.

“It’s going to take a better effort in conference,” he said. “It’s not going to get easier. Our conference has some very strong teams, so you can’t just talk yourself into, ‘It’s going to be easier.'”

Extra notes

Junior guard Kahlil McDonald scored a career-high 11 points against the Cardinals, connecting on three 3-pointers … The loss marked the first time WKU has surrendered 100 points at home since giving up 110 to Louisiana-Lafayette in 2004 … The announced attendance of 7,326 was the sixth-highest crowd number since the renovation of Diddle.