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Mike Lopresti | NCAA.com | December 19, 2021

How Western Kentucky's win over Louisville helped bring some joy after a dark week for the area

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Western Kentucky . . . America’s Team. For one day, anyway.

It was the weekend that COVID roared back into college basketball. Thirteen games were scratched on Saturday, and 17 more have already been scrubbed for the next four days. Suddenly, it feels like 2020 again. But not in Bowling Green, Kentucky. They were also dealing with real life there on Saturday, when Western Kentucky beat Louisville. Deadly reality, complete with shattered families and broken hearts. Except not from a virus.

A week before, when the Hilltoppers were in Atlanta to play Mississippi, coach Rick Stansbury turned on the hotel TV in the middle of the night and watched scenes of his town blowing away. Killer tornadoes were on a rampage across Kentucky, and Bowling Green was nearly the epicenter. Seventeen in the county died, seven from one family. The community had spent a hard week since, in growing disbelief and horror at the damage done, some of it a block from Western Kentucky’s campus. The deadliest area was barely 2½ miles away.

By Saturday, it was time to make a different kind of news. Packed arena. A long-awaited matchup. Blue-blooded Louisville does not agree to visit very often. “Let’s be real. In the real world it’s called a game,” Stansbury had said the day before. “It takes things like what’s happened in this state and Bowling Green to make you understand what the real world is and what reality is. Reality is right now, when you drive to work every morning, seeing these houses and seeing the destruction in these neighborhoods . . . the loss of lives and what these families are going through.”

Alton Strupp/Courier Journal Bowling Green, Kentucky was one of the hardest areas hit by the tornadoes.

Still, he said tipoff would serve a purpose: “Getting people’s minds off tornadoes for a couple of hours.”

The governor was in the house to speak counsel to the crowd before the game. “While we are hurting, while we have been knocked down, we are not broken,” Andy Beshear said. Even the Louisville Cardinals brought toys and other help for the people of Bowling Green. Donations for tornado relief would be sought from the fans, and a local company pledged $500 for every made Hilltopper free throw. Boy, would that end up a hefty gift.

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Meanwhile, the Western Kentucky football team was 930 miles away in Florida, beating Appalachian State 59-38 in the Boca Raton Bowl, with quarterback Bailey Zappe throwing six touchdown passes to set the FBS season record with 62. That game was on the arena videoboards, so the basketball crowd could come in early and cheer, which waves of them did.

And then the basketball game began. Western Kentucky never trailed. The Hilltoppers stunned Louisville in the first half with nine 3-pointers, then finished the job in the second half with free throws. It ended 82-72, Western Kentucky’s first win over the Cardinals in 13 years after nine consecutive losses, the first ever in its E.A. Diddle Arena, and the first in Bowling Green since 1950. All that, and a record-setting bowl win, too. The approving roar could carry to Boca Raton.

"The country saw this game," Stansbury said. "They’ve been seeing western Kentucky for the last week in a negative way, on every TV channel. Today they saw western Kentucky in a different light.”

How could a week so dark produce a Saturday so joyful? It was a nearly perfect scenario wasn’t it, the local media asked Camron Justice, after he scored 25 points?

“Outside of the tornado last week,” he answered.

Lots of compelling stories rolled across the college basketball landscape Saturday. Kentucky crushing North Carolina by 29 points, leading by 35. The Tar Heels hadn’t seen a deficit that wide in 11 years. No. 1 Baylor having to rally at Oregon. Hofstra stunning Arkansas in Little Rock.

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But nothing was quite like what happened in Bowling Green, where a shaken community flooded into an arena for basketball and therapy, and the home team obliged magnificently.

“For them to be here and support us the way they did is just unbelievable,” Justice said. “I think the best word is just testament. That speaks volumes for this community and everything about it.”

Western Kentucky took down Louisville, 82-72, on Saturday.

Afterward, Stansbury wanted to make three points clear.

One, the score was no surprise. Western Kentucky came in 7-4 and had crushed Mississippi by 23 points. The Hilltoppers are no strangers to making trouble for bigger fish, going 11-8 against power-5 teams in the past five seasons. Boston College, Wisconsin and Arkansas are among names to visit Bowling Green and leave with defeats. “Our guys felt like we can play with most people, in this arena for sure,” he said.

Two, he appreciated Louisville and coach Chris Mack for even scheduling the game. “Give Louisville credit for coming. They don’t have a lot to gain coming here to play Western Kentucky,” he said. Lots of factors were against the Cardinals Saturday: Local emotions, a good opponent, a fiery crowd, and star Malik Williams injured.

And three, yeah, this was as important win, Stansbury said. But . . . “At the end of the day, a lot of excitement out here, but it’s still a game, man. Drive by some of those communities, see how our communities have gotten destroyed.

"That’s the real world out there.”

Western Kentucky is one of the more interesting teams in the sport, even without the past week’s events. A few reasons why:

- At 7-5, Jamarion Sharp is the tallest player in college basketball. This stat is no shocker: He leads the nation with 58 blocked shots. He affects a lot more attempts than those, being the omnipresent monolith in the paint that has to be fired over. “He changes the game on both ends of the floor,” Mack said Saturday.

- Justice must be the only player in the nation who was once a graduate assistant coach, and returned to active duty on his honeymoon. His career took him from Vanderbilt to IUPUI to Western Kentucky, but after his supposedly final season in 2019-20, he accepted a sales job, then a graduate assistant post at Western Kentucky, helping in academics.

When the NCAA added an extra year of eligibility for everyone because of COVID, he was cleared for another season of playing. Just after receiving his clearance in November, he was married on a Saturday afternoon. The next day, three hours away, he played 17 minutes and hit a 3-pointer against South Carolina. Saturday, he sank five 3-pointers in the first half to stun Louisville. “Like he was playing horse,” Mack said.

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- Western Kentucky had a 20-win season for the 47th time in 2020-21. Why is that a big deal? Only Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, Kansas and Louisville have had more. The Hilltoppers are in a very ritzy neighborhood.

- Nobody uses the free throw line better than Western Kentucky. The fact the Hilltoppers made 25 free throws Saturday and the Cardinals only attempted seven was standard operating procedure. They have made 37 more than their opponents have tried this season. Last year, the margin was plus-74, and the year before plus-175. “That’s a stat we try to win every game,” Stansbury said.

- Few crowds are louder than when Western Kentucky fills its place. “When our arena’s like that,” Stansbury said, “this is as good a place as there is in America to play.”

Especially Saturday.

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