Jay’s Memorable Moment #5 – ‘Toppers Topped
USL 78. Western Kentucky 72
Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship
E. A. Diddle Arena, Bowling Green, KY
March 8, 1994
They hadn't been in the same conference very long, but it didn't take long for USL's Ragin' Cajuns and the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers to become basketball rivals.
The two teams met once in the 1991-92 season, with the Cajuns getting a Michael Allen 30-footer at the buzzer to beat WKU.
In 1992-93, the Cajuns got blown out at Diddle Arena, but rebounded for a one point win at the Cajundome when Western's Darnell Mee stole an inbounds pass and drove in for a slam dunk as the buzzer sounded, forgetting the Cajuns had a three point lead at the time. The Hilltoppers would go on to play in the Sweet 16, falling in overtime to Florida State.
In 1993-94, Western Kentucky won the regular season championship and beat the Cajuns twice. The Toppers won a close game in Bowling Green, when Cajuns' guard and co-player of the year Michael Allen missed a good part of the first half, needing stitches to close a cut on his chin. Allen would then have one of the worst games of his career in the rematch, scoring just seven points and going 0-9 from three point range as the 'Toppers won by sixteen.
The Cajuns finished one game behind Western Kentucky at the end of the season and one game ahead of arch-rival New Orleans as the teams headed to E. A. Diddle Arena, home of the Hilltoppers, for the Sun Belt Conference tournament. It was the first year since the SBC merged with the American South that the tournament was being played on someone's home court after two years at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi.
The Cajuns, as the #2 seed, took on #7 Texas Pan American in the quarterfinals on Saturday and dispatched the Broncs, 81-60,, with five players in double figures, led by Allen's 20 and a double-double by Byron Starks. New Orleans was next in the semi finals. The two teams had split the regular season series, with the Cajuns winning at home on Senior night. The Cajuns trailed by 14 points in the first half and still trailed by double figures with just 8:36 left. But the Cajuns outscored the Privateers 21-7 down the stretch for a 59-55 win. Allen led the way with 26 points and Starks, who struggled for the first thirty minutes, added twelve.
Western Kentucky, meanwhile, had beaten #8 UALR in the quarterfinals and then took down #4 Jacksonville in the semifinals to set up the third meeting of the year between the Ragin' Cajuns and the Hilltoppers. The entire tournament had gone according to seed without a single upset.
Back then, the first round games were played on Friday, the quarterfinals on Saturday and the semis on Sunday. The teams would then have a day off before the championship, which was on a Tuesday night.
The game would feature the two teams with the best records in the league. The Cajuns were 21-7, while Western was 20-9. But the Hilltoppers had played a better non-conference schedule and were the league champions. On the day before the finals, a press luncheon was held at Diddle Arena. Hilltoppers coach Ralph Willard said the politically correct thing and remarked the two teams would both be in the NCAA tournament. The game was only being played for seeding. But I wasn't buying it. I thought WKU was probably in, but the Cajuns would have to win on Tuesday in order to join the Hilltoppers.
Monday night I helped a friend, David Epstein, celebrate a birthday in Nashville and he said a win would be a great present.
On Tuesday night, Diddle Arena was rocking with 10,878 fans in attendance, fewer than 200 away from the listed capacity. But frankly, I couldn't find 100 empty seats in the place. The basketball-crazed fans from the Bluegrass State were out in droves, ready to see their Hilltoppers clinch a berth into the Big Dance.
Despite the home court advantage, it was Western Kentucky that came out a little tight. THe 'Toppers turned the ball over four times in the first four minutes and the Cajuns took advantage by jumping out to an early give point lead. But WKU settled down and tied the game at eleven with 11:41 to go and took its first lead on a Kevin Willard three pointer 28 seconds later. Tony Moore, who had three big games against the Hilltoppers that season, hit a three pointer to forge a 16-16 tie with under ten minutes left. The teams continued to trade baskets until the five minute mark. Allen hit a 10 footer, Shawn Griggs hit a three pointer and Moore followed with another triple to give the Cajuns a 35-27 lead. But Western scored the last five points of the half and the Cajuns' lead was three, 37-34 at the half.
They would get no closer.
The first half statistics were pretty even. Both teams had 15 field goals. The Cajuns had a one rebound lead. Turnovers were even. Byron Starks led the Cajuns with twelve first half points, while Cyphus Bunton had eight to lead WKU.
WKU turned it over three times in their first five possessions of the second half. Barry Bowman hit a pair of three pointers as the Cajuns built a nine point lead three minutes into the second half. A Willard jumper got the 'Toppers within four, 45-41 with 15 minutes left, but the Cajuns outscored WKU 9-1 over the next three minutes to open up a 12 point lead. Starks had five points in the rally.
But the Hilltoppers weren't done. They went on a 7-0 run of their own to close the lead to 54-51 midway through the second half. Marty Fletcher called the Cajuns' first time out of the night and USL responded with a 9-1 blitz, with Moore scoring five of the points and the double digit lead was back, 63-52 with 7:16 to go.
Again, Western answered, scoring seven straight points to cut the lead back to four. But that would be their last run of the game. Brian Collins scored on a layup, and after a free throw by Western, Allen hit a seven footer, Collins got a slam and Starks hit a driving layup to get the lead back to eleven with 1:25 left. The lead actually grew to 13 with :41 seconds left before the Hilltoppers hit four threes to make it respectable.
But by that time the celebration had begun in the stands as the Cajuns fans who made the trek to Bowling Green knew their team was headed to the dance. As usual, the Cajuns big three scorers led the way. Starks scored 23 on 9-18 shooting. Allen was 7-12 from the field for 17 points and Moore came off the bench and hit three triples to add 15 points. Western was led by Willard, son of the 'Toppers coach with 18 points off the bench. Michael Fraliex chipped in twelve, but Chris Robinson, Western's leading scorer only had five points on 2-8 shooting.
As the final horn sounded and the on court celebration began, Cajuns' coach Marty Fletcher shook hands with Ralph Willard and then headed to the stands to celebrate with his family. Courtside, I started rattling off first round sites and asked Don Allen where he wanted to go.
"I just want to let reality set in for a moment," he said.
As it turned out, it was Tampa, where the Cajuns, seeded #11, fell to Marquette in the first round.
WKU also got an #11 seed, falling to Texas.
David Epstein got his present.