The last couple of weeks has been nothing short of hard for the state of Kentucky.
On Dec. 10, four tornadoes hit the state, resulting in at least 78 lives lost. Many of those who survived are either displaced without a home or have no power. Cities like Mayfield, Benton, Hazel, and the home of Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green were dealt with the most damage, as one tornado hit 223 miles displacing at least 1,000 people.
The campus of WKU had no damage, but only 100 yards away, pure devastation. Throughout the week, the campus community has helped the Bowling Green community with cleanup efforts. Among them, members of the WKU basketball team. The Hilltoppers were not in Bowling Green at the time of impact but had many loved ones in the area.
On Saturday, the following day on Dec. 11, WKU would play against Ole Miss in Atlanta. Head coach Rick Stansbury brought along his wife but kept son Luke home because of his own basketball game. It was canceled on Friday night, and that was when the questions began to come from the Stansbury family. Luke had said it was all fine at home, but when Stansbury woke up a couple of hours later, thing had changed.
“Woke up at 4 o’clock (just to wake up), happened to have the TV on and it was already national news in Atlanta,” Stansbury said. “Then, the pictures started rolling in (8 or 9 a.m.), you can just see the destruction and how much Bowling Green was destroyed.”
Stansbury’s first instinct is to text his son to see if he’s OK. After some time, Luke responded. Luke Frampton, a WKU player, had the same instincts with his wife who was also back in Bowling Green.
“We woke up that morning and I couldn’t get a hold of my wife. I was pretty worried. I woke up pretty scared, to be honest,” Frampton said. “After I found out that she was alright, I was OK. But not everyone got so lucky, so we were praying for those people.”
Giving some good news to the community on that Saturday, the Hilltoppers smacked Kermit Davis and Ole Miss like days of old, 71-49. It soon got very serious though as the Hilltoppers got back home to a depleted Bowling Green at around 3 a.m.
“(The team bus) had to drive by it, but you couldn’t really see it. You could see trees everywhere, but you really couldn’t see the destruction of it all until it was Sunday and we get up and drive back into the office,” said Stansbury.
The team instantly got into the community and helped with the cleanup last Monday, taking the day off from practice. One of those players taking charge was Frampton, who carried his relief from Saturday into impact just a few days later.
“We were just thankful to be able to come here and give back. These are the same people that support us all throughout the year so being able to come out and do whatever we can do is really a blessing,” Frampton told WKU.
On the other side of the state, the University of Kentucky joined in on the relief efforts. On Tuesday night, local NBC station WLEX hosted a telethon with the athletic department from the university. Throughout the day, John Calipari got on shows like SportsCenter and Paul Finebaum to get the word out. Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann was raised in nearby Nicholasville. He instantly donated $50,000 to the reliefs with no second guess.
“Look, my wife and I are doing x-amount, if you and your wife want to go five or $10,000, that’s fine,” Calipari relayed to Finebaum regarding his talk with Holtmann. “He hits me back and texts me and said, ‘We’d like to do $50,000.”
Holtmann would then get on social media and urge the Ohio State community to donate as well.
Later on that Tuesday evening, Western Kentucky played its first basketball game since the tornadoes against Division-III Centre College. The Hilltoppers allowed free admission and food to those who were impacted, hoping to give some sense of relief to the community.
On the court, some history was made in the Hilltoppers’ 90-52 victory. Dayvion McKnight picked up a triple-double with 11 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists. A couple of weeks earlier, 7-foot-5-inch (tallest player in D-1Ibasketball) Jamarion Sharp racked in a triple-double in the Hilltoppers win over Alabama A&M.
McKnight’s performance on Tuesday secured that both he and Sharp were the first teammates in college basketball since 2017-18 to have triple-doubles in the same season. The triple-double on Tuesday was also the fourth ever in the storied history of Western Kentucky basketball.
“It feels good, it feels good,” McKnight exclaimed postgame. “Being a part of this history at WKU, it goes way back. So, I feel like I stamped my name into some of the record books, so it’s an unreal moment.”
On Wednesday, the relief efforts continued 120 miles east in Murray (shoutout Velvet Milkman) where the Racer community gave an unreal effort to help out the victims of the tragedy.
Just like the Hilltoppers, the Racers were on the road when the tornadoes hit.
On Friday night they traveled and beat preseason darling Memphis, 74-72. It was another great win in the storied history of Murray State, but the celebrations could not last long with the uncertainty back home.
“To go from the great win on Friday night. To the fear of the unknown of what’s going on with all the storms. Immediately to the heartbreak,” Murray State head coach Matt McMahon said of their non-DI win on Wednesday, “Our hearts go out to all the great people in our community.”
The Racers opened their campus to the community as the home of the basketball team, CFSB Center, became a warming center/shelter. During their game on Wednesday, they collected non-perishable food items and clothes to donate to those in need. In their big win over top-45 NET team Chattanooga on Saturday, they held a teddy-bear toss. Murray State would couple all that with free admission to both Wednesday and Saturday’s games, as everyone on the bench wore shirts toting the saying “Kentucky Strong.”
“We wear them to show our support for our community, Mayfield, and send our prayers that way too as they bounce back,” guard Trae Hannibal said postgame. “We’ll probably continue to wear them, of course, and prayers to them.”
Back west in Bowling Green, Western Kentucky got word that its game on Saturday against local rival Louisville would move to CBS. Earlier that day, the Hilltoppers football team faced Appalachian State in the Boca Raton Bowl on ESPN — both perfect opportunities to get needed word out to a national audience about the tornadoes.
Western Kentucky’s football team began the day with an easy 59-38 victory over Appalachian State, setting morale high. None was as high as Hilltopper quarterback Bailey Zappe who set the NCAA record for not only single-season passing yards but passing touchdowns during the win. Besides him was his best friend, wide receiver Jerreth Sterns, who spoke earlier in the week about how Bowling Green is his home. He echoed that sentiment during postgame.
“It means everything. I hope today that everyone back home was watching and they felt positive about everything and just forgot about the tornadoes for a temporary moment,” Sterns said. “I’m glad we got to do that for them today.
Bailey Zappe with one of the greatest college football seasons ever pic.twitter.com/wC9nEKDX0j— Barstool Sportsbook (@BSSportsbook) December 18, 2021
Back in Bowling Green, 7,053 fans packed into E.A. Diddle Arena looking to do the same on the hardwood. Louisville came into Bowling Green with giving on their minds, as they donated toys to the community.
“What they did by bringing the toys down to our community right now, it was a great on Coach Mack and (the) University of Louisville,” said Stansbury.
The Hilltoppers came in looking to rally a community going through tough times, and they did just that, leading from start to finish while pulling off their first win against Louisville since 2008, 82-72. It was WKU’s first win in Bowling Green against Louisville since 1950.
“When that arena is like that, this is as good of a place in America to play,” Stansbury said postgame. “I know there’s a lot going on in our community. But hopefully, this is something that everyone can take for a few hours, have some pleasure from, some enjoyment from, get your mind off some things.”
It surely did, as all those Kentuckians, including Gov. Andy Beshear were loud and into the game all 40 minutes, resulting in the Hilltoppers third straight win.
“It was intense, it was emotional, and it is a huge win for Western Kentucky,” CBS announcer Rich Waltz said as the Western Kentucky fight song was loudly sung throughout Diddle Arena after the final buzzer.
There is a lot still at hand, but Murray State and Western Kentucky have done a lot to help out their community.
As of Sunday afternoon, they have raised $4,224,317 and counting. You can add onto that tally on their Red Cross page, https://www.redcross.org/donate/cm/wlextv-pub.html/.