BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO) --- Three and a half minutes into Thursday’s game against Rice, Lamonte Bearden drove to the basket and kicked a pass out to Jared Savage for a three-pointer to put WKU up 9-0. For many of the 1,700 hushed fans in the Tudor Fieldhouse, this was just another shot in another conference game. To the thousands of WKU fans and former players, this was a hallmark moment in the university's storied basketball history.
With that bucket, The Hilltoppers have joined an elite group in college basketball, as they are just the fifth team in NCAA history to reach 1,000 consecutive games with a made 3-pointer. They are in the company of college basketball giants like Duke (1,042), Vanderbilt (1,052), UNLV (1,060), and Kentucky, whose streak of 1,047 games came to an end two years ago.
When presented with this statistic, WKU Director Of Athletics Todd Stewart calmly responded with a phrase that’s tossed around the WKU athletic department, “you are known by the company you keep.”
Through this streak, WKU have had some incredible moments that have pointed the eyes of the nation to The Hill. If you want to find the moment the streak started, then you’ll have to page a few chapters back in the Hilltopper history book. You’ll have to go back 32 years ago to March 15, 1987, when Kurk Lee sank a three against Syracuse in a 104-86 loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Today, the 1986-1987 season will be remembered for one three-pointer, but that team will go down as a bruising powerhouse down low. That roster was built by former Head Coach and Hilltopper legend Clem Haskins, who went on to coach at the University of Minnesota that season, and was centered around bullying teams inside the paint.
To the dismay of WKU, the NCAA introduced the three-point arc that season which stunted the potential of the Hilltoppers. They did have some good perimeter shooters in Brett McNeal and Kurk Lee, which helped The Tops to the second round of the NCAA tournament. But according to WKU Sports Historian Paul Just, that season’s team could have been so much more.
“Had the three-pointer not come into play that year, we might have been a final four caliber team… We had players that could shoot the three, but it wasn’t the backbone of our team. Our chances of doing well were hurt by the addition of the three-pointer, but heck, we won 29 ball games that year!”
The high standard for success remained as WKU began to develop their team with the three-pointer in mind. It took twenty-one years of waiting for The Tops to secure 6 Sun Belt Tournament Championships, and six NCAA tournament appearances, before WKU had finally reached their golden age of three-point shooting.
That season, WKU were bolstered by some of the greatest perimeter shooters the school has ever seen in A.J Slaughter, Courtney Lee, Orlando Mendez-Valdez, and Ty Rogers. These men, who are all in the top-10 for three-pointers made in school history, helped WKU through a glorious run to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. You might remember this fairy tale by Ty Roger’s Shot Heard ‘Round the Hill to upset 5-seed Drake in the first round.
Roger’s remembers his days as a Hilltopper with wide eyes and amazement. He said, “When I look back at those teams, the depth and talent at the guard position amazes me! To play alongside guys like Anthony Winchester, Courtney Lee, and Tyrone Brazelton was a dream come true. We were all lethal from long range!”
It’s hard to match the excitement created around a team that makes headlines during March Madness, but recently the Hilltoppers have reached another peak in excitement. After 11 more years that featured a trio of Sun Belt Tournament Championships and NCAA Tournament appearances, a man from Battletown, Kentucky brought WKU to the Mecca of Basketball.
Rick Stansbury came to a WKU basketball team that was in less than ideal conditions. He had to nearly rebuild the team from the ground up, as there were only 4 players from the prior season who returned and played for WKU. Rick Stansbury made quick work of the rebuild and led the Hilltoppers to the Final Four of the NIT in just his second season at the helm.
Hilltopper fans watched a thrill-ride of a season that year. WKU made history by letting some basketball powerhouses know that Big Red’s Army is a force to be reckoned with. This was the first season in WKU history that The Tops beat a team in the Pac-12, Big-10, ACC, and Big-12.
Todd Stewart remembers this period as one of the most exciting times he’s seen on The Hill. He said, “At that time, I had been here 10 years and that was the most excited I had ever seen people about basketball. People have told me that it had been the most exciting team since Courtney Lee played here.”
The Hilltoppers haven’t been short on excitement this year with a win against #15 Wisconsin, and Thursday night’s double overtime win against Rice. With six wins in their last seven games, the Historical Hilltoppers are certainly a team to pay close attention to.
(Nathan Yazdani contributed to this story)