WKU wasn't in the position it wanted, but it had the play it wanted.
Trailing 87-85 in double overtime to South Carolina, senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew was set to in-bound the ball with 4.4 seconds remaining. With all of his teammates on the opposite end of the court, Pettigrew threw a baseball, length of the court pass that sailed just beyond senior forward Juan Pattillo's outstretched upward hands. The Gamecocks grabbed the loose ball and dribbled out the last few remaining seconds for a dramatic win.
"The pass was there," Pettigrew said. "He always tells us to throw it right there in the middle of the free throw line. I guess it was just a little too high. We practice on that every day in practice, but I wish we would've executed on it."
There was never a second thought of the play by coach Ken McDonald. He had one thing in mind and nearly pulled it off.
"We executed really, pretty well at the end," he said. "I'll have to watch the tape to see and we were about t have a wide open three. If (Pattillo had) caught the ball, Ken Brown would've been cutting to the hoop to get a look. When you're throwing a full-court pass and a game of inches, the pass is right on the money, but the cut's off a foot or the other way around, they might've gotten nudged, you never know until you watch tape, but the guys did a good job of executing. And we were going for the win on that one, try to hit a three."
Demoralizing to Toppers was that the game probably shouldn't have reached the extent it did. WKU led South Carolina 66-61 with 1:27 remaining in regulation. But South Carolina freshman Bruce Ellington nailed a pair of three-pointers on ensuing possessions to tie the game at 67 and send it into overtime.
"Anytime you've got a special one at the point, you know you're gonna get a shot, for sure," coach Darrin Horn said. "And you know defensively, you can keep somebody in front late when it counts. To have him on the floor is big."
Ellington hit another three-pointer in the second overtime as the dagger to give the Gamecocks their final tally. He finished with 20 points.
Pattillo finished with 24 points and 18 rebounds, with 11 of his points coming in the two overtime periods. Pettigrew also finished with a double-double, with 16 points and 12 rebounds. But perhaps just as impressive, Pettigrew played 49 minutes, Pattillo 47 and senior forward Sergio Kerusch 43.
"It was very tough, but that's what we condition ourselves, for these tight games like that," Pettigrew said. "The ball just didn't bounce our way and we've just gotta look forward from here."
The Toppers again struggled at the free throw line, where they converted 13 of 21 free throws, many coming on the front end of one and one opportunities. It's been a continuing theme for WKU this early season.
"We've been working on free throws all week," Kerusch said. "We just have to learn to convert it from practice into games and knock them down."
The dramatic ending overshadowed the return of Horn to Diddle Arena, the previous WKU coach. But Horn didn't want the game to be about him.
"I didn't really have any expectation for it," he said. "I think at gametime, I was focused on the game. My memories and my time here, both as a player and a coach were all positive and all great and a lot of special people. Regardless of reaction, that's what I'll always focus on."
The final result wasn't quite what McDonald wanted, no matter how close it came to going the other way. But it was a slight improvement over a Puerto Rico Tip-Off trip last week that saw the Toppers go 1-2. It still came down to one thing.
"I don't think you quite know how bummed out I am," he said. "It's a tough loss now. I wanted to win that game bad, not personally, but you don't have a lot of opponents come in that you can take advantage of that opportunity. We talked about that all week, worked on the game prep. Coaches did a great job preparing the team, but now you've gotta go out and execute."