Well, the miracle story sure came close didn't it?! On Friday night, the majority of the Kansas Jayhawk faithful were holding their collective breaths as the lil' 16-seed from Bowling Green, Kentucky gave the Big 12 Champions all they could handle. Western Kentucky used the athleticism of George Fant to counter the size of Jeff Withey on offense, hit the glass with wreckless abandon, and took advantage of a cold shooting night from sensational Jayhawk guard Ben McLemore to establish a 31-30 halftime advantage.
Ultimately, ice cold shooting in the second half virtually deflated any chance of the Hilltoppers to be etched in the annals of NCAA Tournament history. The Tops only made two field goals in the first 10 minutes of the second half and shot only 20% from the field in the final 20 minutes, including a putrid 2-for-14 from beyond the magic arc.
Despite the horrid shooting, George Fant fouling out (thanks to a couple of *uh hum* questionable calls) with significant time remaining, and the Hilltoppers' leading scorer T.J. Price having his own struggles making buckets - Western Kentucky kept it close and trailed by only four points with eight and a half minutes remaining before going the next five minutes without a field goal.
The Jayhawks went on an 8-1 run that gave them their biggest lead at 53-42 with a shade over three minutes remaining. But, once again, Western Kentucky kept fighting and the one guy that led the charge was non-other than Jamal Crook. The senior point guard converted a three-point play and added a pair of free throws to slice the Jayhawks lead to six.
The Tops traded a Travis Releford layup for a T.J. Price 3-pointer to trim the margin to 55-50 with 1:57 to play, but that's as close as it would get. The Jayhawks knocked down 9-of-10 from the free throw line to seal the deal and escape with a 64-57 win.
Player of the Game: Jamal Crook. The senior finished the final game of his illustrious career by leading the team in points (13), rebounds (9), and assists (4). That's perseverance.
Stat of the Game: 24-30. That's the Jayhawks free throw makes and attempts which proved to be a difference-maker considering the Tops made one more field goal and three more 3-pointers than Kansas. WKU went 12-18 from the charity stripe.
Quote of the Game: "I thought we had some good looks. I thought we had some great looks. They just didn't fall for us," explained Crook talking about WKU's second half shooting struggles.
Season Over: Western Kentucky finishes the season with 20-16 record, a tremendous accomplishment when you consider the multitude of key injuries during the regular season. They got healthy at the right time, made another successful push through the Sun Belt Conference Tournament by winning four games in four days and went toe-to-toe with a legit national championship contender in the Kansas Jayhawks.
I think it's safe to say, the 2012-13 version of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers truly made their mark.