Down by double-digits Tuesday night, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers surveyed their situation and encouraged one another. They were down by 13 points to North Texas with 12:51 remaining in the Sun Belt tournament title game, but it wasn't an unfamiliar situation.
The team had overcome a double-digit deficit in a quarterfinal victory over Arkansas-Little Rock with the same ferocity that transformed WKU from a 5-14 squad in early January to an NCAA tournament team Tuesday night after a 74-70 win over North Texas.
The 7-seed Hilltoppers stormed back against a feisty and talented UNT team behind gutsy efforts by Oklahoma State transfer Teeng Akol (career-high 23 points) and freshman George Fant (17 points), who helped Western Kentucky earn its 22nd NCAA tournament bid overall and first since 2009.
“We were just saying, 'Be calm. We’ve been here before. It’s not a big deal.' Our whole goal is to come out and be the tougher team, win or lose,” Fant told ESPN.com. “We just want the other team after the game to say, 'That team is really tough because they fought the whole game.'”
But Tuesday’s comeback really started two months ago when Ken McDonald lost his job the morning after a controversial loss to Louisiana-Lafayette. That January loss ended in overtime with the Ragin’ Cajuns using six players on their final, game-winning possession. It was also Western Kentucky’s fifth defeat in six games.
The school immediately gave assistant Ray Harper the interim head coaching job. He had to reassure a flummoxed squad and stop the bleeding.
“We were a team that really had to become a tougher basketball team,” Harper said. “I thought we got better each day. We got tougher and that’s why we’re still playing."
Fant quickly culled his fellow freshman teammates -- the Hilltoppers have seven freshmen on their roster -- and stressed calm. Harper had helped recruit them. Fant trusted him.
The season could be salvaged, the young leader told them.
“I’ve been knowing Coach Harper for a long time and I know what he’s capable of. I just told my team, ‘You guys, don’t panic,’” Fant said. “I think our intensity picked up a lot [after he arrived].”
On his first official day as interim head coach, Harper called every player into a room for individual meetings. He issued his expectations and demanded more toughness. The 'Toppers would have to fight for two halves the rest of the season. No excuses.
They embraced that trait in the weeks that followed Harper’s promotion. Beginning with a Jan. 21 win over UALR, the Sun Belt’s West division champ, the Hilltoppers won 10 of their next 14 games and Harper was named the program's permanent head coach on Feb. 19.
That's looking like a wise move these days, with 15-18 WKU the first team in four years to advance to the NCAA tournament with a losing record.
On Tuesday, North Texas freshman Tony Mitchell (18 points) put the Mean Green on his back. But Akol (5.8 ppg) promised Harper the he wouldn’t let him down after scoring 16 points in his team’s three previous games combined. He didn’t care about leading the team in scoring. His goal was to challenge Mitchell and fight the way Harper wanted his team to fight.
“We just went in there aggressive,” Akol said. “Tony Mitchell is an unbelievable player and I’m just trying to go attack him every time I get the ball. Go at him.”
Sensing tightness in his team after North Texas took that 13-point advantage, Harper reminded the Hilltoppers that they’d faced previous obstacles. And for this program, that word encompasses matters that they’ve encountered on the court and off it.
They couldn’t panic, he told them. He asked them to “nibble” at North Texas’ lead.
Three minutes after the Mean Green seized that double-digit edge, WKU had made the Sun Belt tournament title matchup down to a four-point game.
That’s when Harper cracked a joke.
“I said, ‘You guys are catching up too quick.’ And they laughed,” Harper said. “I just wanted them to loosen up.”
And not panic with a shot at the NCAA tournament on the line.
It seems that this season, the Hilltoppers rarely do.