Hilltoppers watch and wait for first C-USA Tournament opponent

WKU’s Lamonte Bearden elevates over a stubborn UTSA defense in the last home game of the season at E.A. Diddle March 6 in Bowling Green. Bearden racked up 17 points, 8 assists and 3 steals in the 76-81 loss, while UTSA earned the win, and a little revenge. In their previous meeting at the end of Jan. WKU edged out UTSA in overtime.

Alec Jessie

The WKU men’s basketball team’s regular season ended last week with a loss to Texas-San Antonio, but another season has begun.

Even with the unwanted result, WKU added a key piece back in its arsenal for the postseason push. Sophomore forward Marek Nelson returned to the court for the first time since January. A back injury originally considered season-ending kept him out for the previous two months.

Senior guard Lamonte Bearden said getting Nelson back is a big boost for the Hilltopper squad.

“It added a lot,” Bearden said after Wednesday’s loss. “He’s another energy guy and another leader. Josh [Anderson] is usually our energy guy, but now we got two that can go out and give us some dunks and stuff like that.”

With the completion of the Conference USA schedule, the conference tournament bracket has been set. The Hilltoppers clinched the two seed in the tournament with UTSA’s loss to Southern Mississippi on Saturday.

As a result, WKU will have a bye on Wednesday. The Hilltoppers will play the winner of the 7 and 10 seeds in the quarterfinals on Thursday.

North Texas and Florida International will square off on Wednesday for the opportunity to play the Hilltoppers.

During C-USA regular season play, the Hilltoppers are 1-1 against their potential quarterfinal opponents.

WKU faced off with FIU for the only time of the regular season on Jan. 17 in Diddle Arena. The Hilltoppers led 60-44 with under 12 minutes left in the game.

FIU fought back into the game and won on a Brian Beard Jr. tip-in during the final seconds. With the 77-76 defeat, the Hilltoppers were in the midst of a three-game losing streak.

Head coach Rick Stansbury said after the loss that his team needs to be able to put teams away in the second half.

“We’ve talked about this three times in a row,” Stansbury said. “We have to figure out ways to finish games. Winning and losing is a fine line. You have to understand, when you get up in the second half, you have to put your foot on someone’s throat.”

FIU finished the regular season at 10-8 in conference and 19-12 overall. The Panthers are currently 179th in the NCAA Evaluation Tool and are 214th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 179th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com statistics.

Coming off a thrilling double-overtime win over Rice without Stansbury, WKU continued its Lone Star State tour against North Texas. The Mean Green came into the matchup with a 20-4 record and sat in second place in the C-USA standings.

The Hilltoppers started the game strong, doubling up North Texas at halftime with a 30-15 lead. Though the Mean Green would outscore WKU 44-32 in the second half, the Hilltoppers would hang on for their fourth consecutive victory.

Freshman center Charles Bassey praised the team’s performance after the game, saying its members fully believe in each other.

“We’re doing good right now,” Bassey said. “We’re going back and just believing in ourselves. That’s it. Just believing in ourselves and just doing what we can to win every time.”

This loss was the beginning of a seven-game losing streak that sent the Mean Green plummeting to 10th place. North Texas finished the year 20-11 overall and 8-10 in C-USA play. The Mean Green are currently 146th in the NCAA Evaluation Tool and are 258th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 85th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com statistics.

Assuming the high seed wins out, WKU would see a potential matchup with Southern Miss in the semifinal and Old Dominion in the finals.

The Hilltoppers come into the tournament ranked 119th in the NCAA Evaluation Tool. According to KenPom.com statistics, WKU is 153rd in adjusted offensive efficiency and 113th in adjusted defensive efficiency.

WKU concluded the regular season on an up-and-down stretch. The Hilltoppers went 2-2 in bonus play with wins over Alabama-Birmingham and Southern Miss and losses to Old Dominion and UTSA.

Stansbury and company will look for consistency and try to string together three wins in the tournament to clinch the first NCAA tournament berth for the Hilltoppers since 2013.

“It becomes a one-game season,” Stansbury said after Wednesday’s loss to UTSA. “Every game you play is your last one. It’s a three-game season. Play them one at a time. You have no idea who you play, but there is very little separation.”

Tipoff for Thursday’s quarterfinal is set for 8:30 p.m. in The Star, the training home of the Dallas Cowboys in Frisco, Texas.

Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow Alec on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie.