Western Kentucky and Texas Basketball: A unique connection

USA TODAY Sports

Ray Harper has Western Kentucky in the Dance for the 2nd year in a row, but long before that he was a part of the saddest, and strangest basketball season in UT History.

Monday night, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers defeated Florida International 65-63, in the Sun Belt Conference finals to earn their 2nd straight trip to March Madness.

It was a hard loss for Richard Pitino, Son of Rick, who is in his first year as head coach at FIU, where he has turned the program around after the disastrous 3-year run of Isiah Thomas.

But this story is about the Hilltoppers coach and his strange journey to NCAA success.

Ray Harper was an assistant at WKU when Ken McDonald was fired midway through the 2012 season and Harper stepped in. McDonald had been an assistant under Rick Barnes at Texas from 2004-08 before taking the Hilltopper job. But in terms of Longhorn connections, Harper can do him one better.

Ray Harper was the starting point guard on Abe Lemons last team at Texas.

1981-82 - The Star Crossed Season

The Texas basketball squad that season was built much like the more successful teams of today - two sure-fire NBA prospects with 4 or 5 role players surrounding them.

LaSalle Thompson was Abe's first big national recruit. A 6-11 center out of Cincinnati, Thompson set the school rebounding record in three years that wasn't broken for two decades. His single-season mark of 23 double-doubles in the 1980-81 season still stands.

Mike Wacker was a 6-8 sophomore power forward who would rebound with the best while also showing a nice mid-range jumper. He was the perfect compliment down low. Wacker's infectious personality, inherited from his father, TCU football coach Jim Wacker, made him a natural leader.

Those two dominated the play, but it was the gym rat from Bremen, KY who could bring a smile to Lemon's face. Ray Harper distributed the ball and played fearlessly on the defensive end. He was the SWC Rookie of the Year in 1980-81 when he averaged 10 points and 4 assists a contest.

Texas ran off 14 straight victories to start the season, winning by an average of 19 points per game. The streak included a 12-point win at #10 Houston and a 14-point victory over #9 Arkansas at the Erwin Center.

The next game, January 26, 1982, was at Baylor. Sports Illustrated had a writer and photographer with the team, working on a cover story. Abe Lemons did not travel with the team, he was in Oklahoma City for a family funeral, but was planning on getting to Waco during the contest.

While Lemons was driving from Dallas to Waco, the season came crashing down. Wacker jumped up for a rebound and destroyed his knee in the process. Untouched, he collapsed to the floor screaming in pain. The doctor later said that if he had taken a sledgehammer to his knee he could not have done more damage.

Just outside of Waco, Lemons picked up the radio broadcast of the game, heard about Wacker's knee injury - and just kept on driving back to Austin.

Without Wacker the delicate balance among the 6-man rotation was broken. Suddenly players like Denard Holmes and Virdell Howland had to play out of their comfort zone. The team collapsed, finishing 2-11 the rest of the way.

But the cold, hard numbers hardly tell the story of the pain and anguish of that season. It reached the low point 10 days after the Baylor game when Texas went to Arkansas.

Barnhill arena was a true pit, and the Razorbacks smelled blood in the water when Texas showed up Feb. 6.

Arkansas was loaded with NBA talent as well, with Scott Hastings, Alvin Robertson and Darrell Walker. It was an ugly atmosphere from the start. The coaches (Eddie Sutton and Abe) didn't like each other and the fans hated Texas.

Somehow the Horns stayed close and lost in overtime. But it was towards the end when things got out of control. Harper and Hastings got into a little shoving match, and then suddenly Darrell Walker sucker punched Harper from behind.

All hell broke loose.

The fight expanded to include both teams, though it was mostly a shoving match. But once that calmed down, the fans were still in frenzy.

The Texas team had to leave the court directly through the student sections and one of the football players reached over the railing and popped Harper as he walked by. That started another min-brawl.

Lemons lost his enthusiasm for the season and the team quickly took their cue from their coach. After the season Abe was fired and LaSalle Thompson turned pro.

Mike Wacker spent two and half years in rehab just to play one more season at Texas. He was he team MVP in 1984-85 and All-SWC. He then went into coaching and has been at Converse-Judson High School since 1990. Mike was inducted into the Longhorn Hall of Honor in 1999.

LaSalle Thompson played in the NBA for 15 years and was inducted into the Longhorn Hall of Honor in 1998, the year after he retired from pro basketball.

Ray Harper transferred back home, to Kentucky Wesleyan where he was the Division II School's first All-American. Ray later returned to his Alma Mater as head basketball coach, and after 9 seasons, he moved to Abe Lemon's Alma Mater, Oklahoma City.

In his 12 years at Oklahoma City and Kentucky Wesleyan Harper has went 342-63 (84.4%), winning four national championships while reaching the title game an incredible 9 out of 12 seasons. He joined the staff at Western Kentucky with McDonald in 2008.

Last season Western Kentucky was the 7th seed in the Sun Belt tournament, but the Hilltoppers won four straight games to gain the NCAA automatic berth. They then beat Mississippi Valley State 59-58 before falling to #1 Kentucky 81-66.

Ray Harper has them back in the dance once again, and while I watch the brackets revealed this Sunday at some point when Western Kentucky pops up on the screen, memories of the saddest, and weirdest basketball season in UT history will cross my mind.

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