BOWLING GREEN — Western Kentucky fired basketball coach Ken McDonald on Friday after a 5-11 start capped by a chaotic ending to a loss the night before.
Assistant Ray Harper was appointed interim head coach by Athletic Director Ross Bjork, who said the team needs a "new voice" and someone who can help restore "respect" to the program and stop the slide in attendance.
McDonald finishes with a 67-49 record following a 72-70 overtime defeat to Louisiana-Lafayette when the Ragin' Cajuns scored with six players on the court for the final possession. The Sun Belt Conference confirmed the error Friday, but said the score stands.
"During the play the officials, both teams and the scorer's table were unaware of the extra player," associate commissioner John McElwain said in a statement. "When the game was concluded the officials conversed and determined that the play was not correctable or reviewable."
Bjork is looking for an "infusion of energy" from Harper, who makes his debut Saturday when Western Kentucky hosts Troy.
"How many games are we going to win? We have no idea," Bjork said. "But I know looking at these guys in the eyes this morning and seeing their pain and anguish the last couple of weeks, I believe they're going to focus and we're going to see something."
Harper spent 12 seasons as head coach at Kentucky Wesleyan College and Oklahoma City University before moving to Western Kentucky as an assistant for the 2008-09 season. Bjork said he would handle the coaching search himself, and Harper is considered a "strong candidate."
"I'm not concerned about that," Harper said. "(There's) 57 days until the conference tournament, so we've got 57 days to get this thing right and really be playing our best basketball."
Western Kentucky has reached the round of 16 seven times and played in the 1971 Final Four, though that appearance was vacated by the NCAA over rules violations. Bjork said the program's tradition — the last 11 coaches have made at least one NCAA Tournament appearance — will help him in his search.
"We will attract great candidates," Bjork said. "There may be some coaches that say, 'I need to wait until my season is over' and we'll assess that with the rest of the pool and decide, do we wait or do we move forward with another candidate."
The Hilltoppers have been in steady decline since McDonald took over following a run to the round of 16 in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. Western Kentucky returned to the tournament in 2009, but missed the post-season each of the past two years. It is on its way to a losing season, which would be its first since finishing 11-18 in 1999-00.
The 50-year-old Harper is from Bremen and was honored as Division II Coach of the Year at Kentucky Wesleyan three times in nine seasons. He also earned NAIA Coach of the Year honors at Oklahoma City after leading the Stars to a 2007-08 national championship. Harper joined Western Kentucky the following year as an assistant. He is 342-63 as a coach.
"The bottom line is this team, we're currently 5-11, and the one thing I think is they're hanging together, they believe in each other and we're going to go compete," Harper said.
McDonald took a $100,000 pay cut in March to help get the Hilltoppers back on track following a 16-16 season as part of what Bjork dubbed a program "reset." But McDonald's latest team struggled even more — losing all three games in a holiday tournament in Charleston, S.C., and a home game to state rival Murray State as attendance has dwindled.
The Hilltoppers drew 3,813 for their season opener against St. Joseph's and announced just 2,137 in the loss to the Ragin' Cajuns on Thursday night despite a $1 ticket promotion.
In that game, after a timeout in the closing seconds of overtime, video showed the Ragin' Cajuns broke their huddle with six players. Elfrid Payton hit a layup with three seconds remaining to win the game.
"I looked on the floor and I thought I had lost my mind," Harper said. "I see five guys and the official hands someone (else) the ball."
Western Kentucky did not immediately protest. The game officials — Roger Ayers, Reinaldo Acosta and Brad Gaston — huddled after the game but the play stood. Bjork said he spoke to Sun Belt coordinator of officials Mike Wood four or five times from Thursday night into Friday morning.
"I know the officials regret it," Bjork said. "They do because they try to be perfect. ... Those guys are human."
McElwain said the conference would not comment further and any punishment would be handled internally by the league office. Harper said his players will prepare to play Troy and not dwell on the whirlwind of events.
"We'll move forward," Harper said. "If it ever comes up again we'll know how to guard six, though."