Jan 14 – One aspect of college basketball that is so irrepressible and irresistibly intriguing is this: You just never know.
By mid-January Wednesday, as criticism of Kentucky coach John Calipari reached a fevered pitch across much of the Commonwealth, Louisville’s miserable season continued its inevitable spiral into the abyss with its 15th loss in 17 games under first-year coach Kenny. Pain. , Western Kentucky finally decided to step up against a quality opponent and play up to his expectations.
The Hilltoppers, having lost five of their previous six games and still campaigning without embattled seventh-year coach Rick Stansbury (undisclosed illness), somehow found a way to upset Conference USA preseason favorite UAB 80-78 in, of all places, Birmingham, Alabama . . The Blazers entered the contest as a rock-solid 11-point favorite and were already 10-0 playing at Bartow Arena. Go figure.
Not only did West prevail in stunning fashion, it did so without three starters on the floor in the end. Emmanuel Acott, a 6-foot-8 swingman, missed the entire second half after being injured in the first 20 minutes. Jairus Hamilton, a 6-8 forward, fouled out, as did 7-5 center Jamarion Sharp, the national leader in blocked shots.
“We were facing so much adversity, and it was like, ‘What’s going to happen next?’ “WKU associate head coach Phil Cunningham said. “But, you know, the guys we had out there just kept battling, kept making plays, kept shooting.
“You talk about a team effort, it was a team effort — everybody we put out there was in that win, and that’s a big one. Puts us back in the (C-USA) hunt.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
Speaking of UK, the key basket of the game was provided by former Wildcat guard Dontae Allen, who swished a 25-foot bomb off a nice Jordan Rawls assist with 26 seconds remaining to snap a 73-all deadlock and give the Hilltoppers The lead for good.
“I can tell you this, everybody on our bench believed the ball was going in the basket when he let it go,” Cunningham said of Allen’s clutch trifecta. “We all knew it was going down.”
It was, ironically, Allen’s only field goal attempt of the game and WKU’s 10th 3-pointer in 20 attempts from distance on the night.
There were other heroes, too, including junior point guard Dayvion McKnight (27 points, four assists), but none played a bigger role than Rawls, a 6-2 senior reserve combo guard who had missed the previous two games with a fracture. Right (shooting) thumb but decided to play through the discomfort.
“They say if I can handle the pain, I can play,” said Rawls, who finished with a season-high 16 points, four assists and just one turnover. “I want to be there, I want to play.”
Rawls wasn’t the only hero off the bench for the Hilltoppers, who got seven points from junior guard Christian Lander, a deep-shooting transfer from Indiana, and five points from both Allen and 6-7 junior power forward Tyrone Marshall, a Hassle. Around the glass that deserves more pt.
All told, Western’s bench outscored UAB’s, 33-11 — the first time the Tappers’ depth has lived up to its much-ballyhooed preseason hype. It helped offset the Blazers’ sizable 44-30 advantage on the boards.
WKU (10-6, 2-3 C-USA) will look to keep the pedal to the metal in two must-win upcoming games at EA Diddle Arena – Saturday vs. Florida International (8-8, 2-3) and Monday vs. Far and away the league’s biggest surprise, Florida Atlantic (15-1, 5-0). UAB lost to both in the Sunshine State last week.
Now, in more ways than one, the ball sits squarely in the West’s court, and it will be interesting to see how the rejuvenated Hilltoppers respond to the challenge.
You just never know.