Of the 22 times Western Kentucky has celebrated an NCAA tournament bid in the storied history of its basketball program, Tuesday night's wild dogpile at center court may be the most improbable yet.
The Hilltoppers defeated North Texas 74-70 in the Sun Belt title game, capping a run of four victories in four days, each by less than five points. It was the type of surge that not even the most starry-eyed optimist on the team would have dared envision two months ago.
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On Jan. 5, athletic director Ross Bjork fired coach Ken McDonald with the team off to a 5-11 start and attendance dwindling. On Jan. 14, the Hilltoppers fell behind Denver 43-16 at halftime en route to a third straight loss to begin interim coach Ray Harper's tenure. Even after a slight uptick at the end of the regular season after Bjork lifted Harper's interim tag, Western Kentucky still entered the Sun Belt tournament as the No. 7 seed with an 11-18 overall record and a sub-.500 mark in league play.
"I would say this is probably one of the more unlikely runs this program has had," Harper said. "Four wins in four days as the No. 7 seed? I don't know how to explain it. We're a resilient team and we just kept fighting. My hat's off to these kids."
That the Hilltoppers vanquished Florida International, Arkansas-Little Rock, Denver and North Texas in a span of 96 hours is certainly validation for Bjork's controversial decision to make Harper his full-time coach. Many thought Bjork ought to have waited until the end of the season to hire a coach since the pool of candidates who would have been interested in such a plum mid-major job likely would have been deep.
Harper, 50, is neither an up-and-coming assistant like Western Kentucky has traditionally hired, nor someone with a proven Division I track record. He was a successful head coach at Division II Kentucky Wesleyan from 1996 to 2005 before an NCAA investigation that resulted in the 2002-03 season being vacated drove him to leave for NAIA Oklahoma City.
Asked if he felt vindicated at all by the success this week, Harper deflected the attention from himself to his team
"I never even worried about that," he said. "My focus was on these kids and trying to help them get better each day."
Harper first began to see signs of improvement from his players in the second half of the Jan. 14 game at Denver after he challenged them at halftime to show some pride despite an insurmountable 27-point deficit. Instead of drawing plays on the board, Harper told his players, "Look guys, this is not ever happening again. We're never walking into the locker room again where we're not the tougher basketball team."
Although Western Kentucky still lost that game by 13, making the score respectable on the road against one of the better teams in the league helped instill some confidence. The Hilltoppers won six of 10 to close the regular season, including upsets of Eastern Division champion Middle Tennessee State and Western Division champion Arkansas-Little Rock.
"I think they started to believe," Harper said. "I'm sure there was some doubt at first. 'Coach Harp is practicing us too hard. Why are we doing this?' But after that Denver game, I started to see guys believing in what we were doing. Give them credit for buying in because it's not an easy thing, especially in the middle of the year like that."
Befitting a team whose five leading scorers average between eight and 12 points, Western Kentucky had a different hero in each of its Sun Belt tournament victories.
Against Florida International, senior guard Kahlil McDonald scored 19 points and sank 5 of 8 threes. Against Arkansas-Little Rock, 6-foot-2 freshman Derrick Gordon erupted for 25 points and 15 rebounds. And against Denver, 6-foot-5 freshman George Fant led the way with an efficient 17 points.
It was big man Teeng Akol whose 23-point effort sparked Western Kentucky against North Texas, but McDonald was the Hilltopper who sank the biggest shot. Western Kentucky trailed by as many as 13 second-half points but McDonald capped the comeback with a top-of-the-key three with just over a minute remaining, giving the Hilltoppers a 70-68 lead they never relinquished.
Asked if he thought his team would have been able to complete that kind of a comeback when he first took over the program two months ago, Harper admitted the team took a few months to develop that resiliency.
"They would take a punch and didn't know how to come back," Harper said. "Confidence is a crazy thing. When guys have confidence, I've seen them do some amazing things."
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