One Wild Weekend

Kyle Tucker

Tears and giants tell the story. They mark the path of a wild and winding weekend that saw four Western teams reach new heights, sink to demoralizing lows and regain the swagger of programs past. The madness spanned nearly the width of our nation. The emotions stretched even farther.

In Arizona Saturday, the Toppers took the court hoping to repeat the season-opening magic of a year ago at Kentucky. But these southwestern Wildcats were unslayable giants. Arizona ran away 107-68. Todor Pandov’s screams — after a skin-crawling, knee-popping injury — were symbolic, as what might have been a coronation became a question mark for the season to come.

Back here in Diddle Arena that night, the women did what the men couldn’t, something no one thought they would. Not only did the Lady Toppers upset perennial giant Louisiana Tech, they dismantled the No. 10 Lady Techsters, 71-57. Coach Mary Taylor Cowles ushered in her inaugural season with a message: Lady Topper basketball is back.

Earlier that day in Miami, Travis Hudson was delivered from the brink of another bitter disappointment. His volleyball team rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat New Mexico State and cart off the elusive Sun Belt Conference tournament trophy and first-ever NCAA Tournament nod. After the Lady Toppers avoided a third-straight collapse in the tournament, Hudson reflected on the hardwood floor. He lay there as players patted his back, his joyous tears washing away the past.

And at BW3’s Sunday, when the voice from the big screen television told the Western football team it was in the playoffs for the third straight year, it was the punctuation on a season of statements. Their alternate sighs and yelps told the relief and joy of a team that had been written off as a rebuilding ball club. A starless team stole the spotlight and made an improbable run — one that seems far from over.

It took 48 hours and a few thousand miles to unfold. It’ll take a while longer to comprehend.

MEN’S BASKETBALL: Tops, Pandov fall in Arizona

By Kyle Hightower

TUCSON, Ariz. – Freshman Jamaal Brown hid behind an ice pack most of the second half during Western’s season opener at No. 1 Arizona Saturday.

But he couldn’t shield what every person in the McKale Center could see as plain as the rough desert cactus outside.

As the Hilltopper forward squirmed and paced along the sideline, he occasionally revealed the swelling from being poked in his right eye while scrapping for a rebound in the first half.

He was later joined by junior forward Todor Pandov, who in the second half tore the medial collateral ligament, anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his left knee, a Western athletics official said last night. He will miss the rest of the season.

Afterward, the Toppers were in search of something to ease the pain of a 107-68 defeat.

The top-ranked Wildcats used an annoying press attack and stingy defense to dismantle Western in front of 14,584 fans.

“It got real bad, real early,” said sophomore guard Patrick

Sparks, who had just six points while committing six turnovers. “We knew going in they were going to try to dictate to us, but it was more of our mental mistakes.

“We just got beat by the No. 1 team in the nation. They’re good for a reason.”

Arizona (1-0) used a 24-2 run over a span of 4:30 to take command of the game before the first half horn. The Wildcats led 53-25 at the half.

The loss was Western’s worst since a 124-65 loss at Georgia in November 1990.

The Wildcats swiped 17 steals and forced 28 Western turnovers. The Toppers were within 27-17 late in the first half before Ari-zona’s big run widened the gap.

“Today was a case of too much quickness and too much size at the wing spots for Western Kentucky to be able to handle,” Olson said. “Western Kentucky is a very good basketball team with a lot of experience. We got a lot of pressure on them, and a lot of the turnovers we forced them into were the result of our size and pass deflections.”

In the weeks leading up to Saturday’s game, many Western basketball fans hailed this year’s season opener as David vs. Goliath Part II. Fans hoped for a repeat of the Toppers’ stunning 64-52 upset win over Kentucky to open last season.

But in the sequel, David apparently forgot his stones. And unfortunately, Goliath brought some boulders.

The Wildcats pressed Western (0-1) from the opening minute and used their quickness and size at the guard and forward spots. They also used the speed of their big men to force Western into making quick and often disastrous decisions as it tried to break into the front court.

“We broke their press early, but missed a lot of layups and open jumpers that allowed them to continue to be confident,” Western coach Dennis Felton said. “We weren’t making them pay.”

Arizona had apparently prepped to do its damage on the defensive end.

“Coach Olson stays on us so much about defense because that’s what wins,” Arizona freshman guard Hassan Adams said. “We had to come out today and show we’re the No. 1 team in the country. We give 100 percent out there, and then Coach will give you a rest so you can get back out there and keep giving 100 percent.”

That effort forced the Toppers into 15 turnovers over the first 20 minutes — including five from Sparks.

Western played a more even second half, but the damage was already done.

“The two biggest factors today were their incredible offense and their press,” Felton said. “Arizona is in another solar system than us athletically and talent-wise, and our guys clearly didn’t play with enough poise.”

And the chief force in that solar system is balance.

Arizona had seven players in double figures, led by Adams who scored 22 points in just 17 minutes of action. Player of the Year candidates Luke Walton and Jason Gardner each added 12, along with backup point guard Will Bynum.

As a team, the Wildcats shot 56 percent and 34 percent from behind the 3-point arc.

But Western had a few positives, too.

Senior forward David Boyden led Western with a career-high 26 points on 11 of 17 shooting and 4 of 7 behind the arc.

Western shot 47 percent from the field for the game after shooting a dismal 36 percent in the first half.

“We really dug ourselves into a hole in the first half,” Boyden said. “We came out in the second half with more intelligent play and really slowed the game down.”

Aside from the obvious lopsided game, there were other things ailing the Toppers after the final buzzer.

Pandov, who was the only other Western player in double figures, left the game with 13:31 remaining. After chasing a rebound, Pandov came up yelling and grabbing his left knee.

He had to be carried to the locker room by two trainers.

Boyden said the loss of Pandov would be a huge blow to the team, which was looking to lean on Pandov’s scoring and rebounding abilities.

It could also mean a rocky first few weeks for a Western team without 7-foot-1 center Chris Marcus, whose return date from ankle surgery is still unknown.

The Toppers will try to bounce back without the pair as they open their home schedule at 7 tonight against Virginia Commonwealth in Diddle Arena.