RICHMOND — Before Dan McHale sent his Eastern Kentucky team out to face ancient rival Western Kentucky on Wednesday night, the EKU coach wrote a number on the chalkboard.
Eastern had not beaten Western in men’s basketball since a 68-66 victory on Jan. 7, 1987.
“‘Who was born in 1987?’” McHale asked his team. “Well, I was 7 years old. These guys, obviously, weren’t born.”
The message was clear.
It was time for EKU to break through against the rival that had beaten the Colonels 13 times in a row.
For Eastern Kentucky, the 14th time was the charm.
Riding balanced scoring and 13 three-pointers, EKU (4-4) pasted the Hilltoppers 78-59 before a Paul S. McBrayer Arena crowd of 5,400 that included Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin.
Freshman point guard Asante Gist led the Colonels with 19 points, 17 after halftime. Skilled sophomore big man Nick Mayo had 14 points and five assists. Senior guard Isaac McGlone also had 14 points, and hit all five of his shots — four of them three-pointers. Senior swingman Jaylen Babb-Harrison added 13 points and seven boards for the winners.
“Eastern was good, now,” Western Kentucky Coach Rick Stansbury said. “You have to give Eastern credit.”
If you are like me, sports in the state of Kentucky is just better when Eastern and Western are playing sports. Once the fiercest of rivals when they were in the Ohio Valley Conference, it has never quite been the same since Western left the OVC in 1982.
Still, the rivalry packs some punch.
McHale spent Wednesday morning zipping around the EKU campus in a golf cart giving away Colonels T-shirts and imploring students to come to the game.
In his pregame news conference Tuesday, Stansbury declared that Wednesday night’s game would be Eastern’s “Super Bowl.”
The result was a crowd that all but filled McBrayer Arena, just like vintage days of EKU-WKU.
Mayo, a 6-foot-9, 235-pound sophomore from Oakland, Maine, got Eastern out of the blocks by scoring eight of the Colonels’ first 10 points. He sandwiched two three-point shots around a running cuff dunk.
McGlone, a senior guard who McHale calls “my rock,” gave Eastern separation by draining three straight three-pointers to turn a 24-21 EKU lead into a 33-23 advantage on the way to a 35-24 halftime lead.
Western made its charge out of the intermission, pulling within 37-33 on a Pancake Thomas jumper.
But Eastern didn’t flinch. Gist, a prized recruit out of the famed St. Anthony High School in New Jersey, lit up the Hilltoppers in the second half, hitting 6 of 8 field goals and 3 of 4 three-pointers.
Western, meanwhile, wilted down the stretch.
“That’s been a pattern for us,” Stansbury lamented. “When it starts going a little bit bad, we just don’t dig in and play with the grit you’ve got to have.”
Former Perry County Central star Justin Johnson — whose banked-in three-pointer with 1.9 seconds left gave WKU an 86-84 win over EKU last year in Bowling Green — had 18 points and eight rebounds to lead Western.
Stansbury’s big buzz, of course, has been created on the recruiting trail. WKU rocked the college basketball world in the November signing period, inking 5-star center Mitchell Robinson, a 7-footer out of Chalmette, La.; 4-star guard Josh Anderson out of Baton Rouge; and 2017 Kentucky Mr. Basketball favorite Taveion Hollingsworth from defending state champion Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Robinson, the No. 6 prospect in the Rivals 150, brought some unwelcome attention to Stansbury’s recruiting tour de force Tuesday when he tweeted his intention to de-commit from Western in order to take other visits.
At a Tuesday news conference, Stansbury noted that Robinson has signed a letter of intent and said the player’s father told him the center’s Twitter account had (insert throat clearing sound effect) been hacked.
Next season, Western will also add transfer guard Lamonte Bearden, who averaged 13.7 points and 4.2 assists at Buffalo last season and is sitting out this year as a transfer.
Eastern’s McHale has a youngish team whose two most talented players, Mayo and Gist, are underclassmen. He also has former Lafayette High School star Jackson Davis sitting out after transferring from Butler.
Wednesday night, however, was all about an old rivalry getting a new twist.
After the Colonels had thrown off their Hilltoppers’ curse, a different number was written on the board in the EKU locker room.
“We went in and wrote ‘2016,’” McGlone said.
Said McHale: “They’ll never be able to take this away from us. First time in 29 years we beat Western Kentucky. That’s something people will be talking about around here for a long, long time.”