Toppers and Cajuns: A Six Pack of Memories – From the Bird’s Nest
I gotta tell you…I’m gonna miss this place.
I’ve been going to Diddle Arena for 22 years now. And it’s been a lot of fun.
Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cajuns take on the WKU Hilltoppers for the final scheduled game at the venerable arena tonight. And, there have been some memorable games here.
I decided to write a blog about the five most memorable games between WKU and Louisiana at Diddle…and then realized I couldn’t narrow it down to five games. So, here’s a six pack of my biggest memories at this place.
6. The Empty Tank—Western Kentucky 121, USL 92—January 31,1993.—The Cajuns won the first meeting between the two teams when Darnell Mee mistakenly thought his team was down two points and dunked the ball as the horn sounded. He started celebrating, thinking the game was going into overtime. As it turned out, the teams played again just ten days later. On the Friday night, the Cajuns took on Massachusetts at midnight in the final game in the old Curry Hicks Cage. Early the next morning they were on their way to Bowling Green for a Sunday afternoon contest. Do the math. It was barely 36 hours later. And, the Cajuns had nothing. They didn’t guard in a single possession and got hammered by the Hilltoppers. Everyone on the Western Kentucky team scored, including the managers, ball boys and WKU play by play announcer Wes Strader. The Cajuns were upset in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Tournament, while WKU knocked off New Orleans (which had gone 18-0 in the league) for the championship. The ‘Tops reached the Sweet Sixteen and were an overtime period away from the Elite Eight.
5. Dance Thugs, Dance—Louisiana 88, WKU 77–January 29, 2000—This was not a year where the Hilltoppers were among the league’s elite. That year, the Cajuns and South Alabama tied for the league’s regular season title. The two teams met in the tournament finals in North Little Rock, AR, with a Lonnie Thomas turnaround bank shot gave the Cajuns a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Actually this game wasn’t nearly as memorable as what happened afterward. This was a very good Cajuns team and they knew it. And, they had a ritual after every win. They would come to mid-court, get down on a knee for a prayer. Then they’d get up, all put their hands up in the circle and then jump up and down. Home or Away, it didn’t matter. After the Cajuns’ 88-77 win, the Cajuns’ went through their ritual. Fans at Diddle Arena took exception as did ‘Toppers coach Dennis Felton, who mentioned it every time the Cajuns came to town during the rest of his tenure in Bowling Green. Afterward on a Hilltopper message board, fans referred to the team as “thugs.” And, “Dance Thugs Dance” became a Cajun Fans battle cry that some still use today.
4. Battle of the Big Guys—WKU 63, Louisiana 62—January 10, 2002—This one was a good one. Both teams featured a solid man in the middle. Chris Marcus, who was listed at 7’1”, was a junior. He had already led the ‘Tops to the NCAA tournament the previous year. The Cajuns had a freshman named Michael Southall. He was pretty good, too. This game was tight all the way. The Cajuns had the last possession. Anthony Johnson had a solid look at the basket just inside the free throw line. He shot and the ball hit the back of the iron and WKU escaped with a 63-62 win. Both teams won their respective divisons and met in the SBC finals at the Lakefront Arena. Marcus put on a show, scoring 26 points with eleven rebounds and six blocks as the Hilltoppers defeated the Cajuns, 76-70.
3. Squeeze Bottle Night—Louisiana 110, WKU 102—January 29. 2004.—WKU had won 29 straight conference games at Diddle going into this one. And the crowd was treated to quite an offensive show. The Cajuns shot 64 percent for the game. Antoine Landry scored a career high 27 points for Louisiana and made five three pointers. Brad Boyd also hit five triples including three clutch shots down the stretch. The aptly-named Anthony Winchester rifled in 40 points for WKU, who lost for the first time at Diddle in a conference game since the 1999-2000 season when they were beaten by…the Cajuns. (see #5 above.) After the game, the Cajuns went to mid court and knelt for a prayer. The Diddle crowd, who remembered what the Cajuns did the last time they had won in Bowling Green (again, see above), pelted the floor with plastic squeeze bottles, which had been given out free to the fans that night. After the prayer, the Cajuns walked slowly to their locker room. The Cajuns came back to Diddle in March, where they won the SBC Tournament title over UNO.
2. The Sixth Man—Louisiana 72, WKU 70 (OT) January 5, 2012—It was a game early in the conference season when the two teams got together a couple of years ago. The Cajuns went through a field goal drought of over four minutes down the stretch as WKU rallied for a 62-59 lead. But the Cajuns got three crucial defensive stops and sent the game into overtime on an Elfrid Payton free throw with seven seconds to play in regulation. It was Payton’s first point of the game. Payton added a steal and a layup to give the Cajuns a three point lead in the overtime, 70-67 before a Derrick Gordon triple tied the game with :27 remaining. Bob Marlin called a timeout and set up a final play. The play did not include having six men on the court. But Kadeem Coleby, who was supposed to come out of the game on a substitution, remained on the court, giving the Cajuns six players in the final seconds. Payton dribbled the clock down and hit a layup with under three seconds remaining for the game winner. The officials never noticed there were six men on the court. The outcome was national news the next day. It was also the last game for WKU coach Ken McDonald, who was fired the next morning.
1. Seniors beat Sophomores for a championship—USL 78, WKU 72—March 8, 1994. Of all the championships the Cajuns have won, this one might have been the most unlikely. Western Kentucky did a great job of reloading after their 1993 Sweet Sixteen run, with two sophomores, Michael Fraliex and Chris Robinson leading the way. The Cajuns had a veteran club with three 1,000 point senior scorers in Michael Allen, Byron Starks and Tony Moore. But the Hilltoppers beat the Cajuns not once, but twice during the regular season, including a sixteen point blowout at Diddle and were a heavy favorite in the tournament at Diddle Arena. The Cajuns had to battle just to get into the title game, coming back from a 12-point second half deficit to beat New Orleans in what proved to be Tim Floyd’s last game as the Privateers’ coach. On the night of the championship, with nearly 11,000 fans in attendance, the Cajuns put on a clinic. Allen, Starks and Moore were sensational and freshman Bryan Collins was a force inside. The final score was 78-72, but it wasn’t nearly that close. The Cajuns dominated and only a barrage of three point shots in the final minute made the score respectable. It was the first of two championships the Cajuns won at Diddle, also beating New Orleans in the title game ten years later.
So there are six. If you add the great games in the Cajundome and in the Sun Belt Tournaments, this has been one heckuva series.
I hate that it’s ending.