Hilltoppers continue to surge despite absence of Stansbury

WKU freshman guard Dalano Benton goes up for a basket during WKU’s 72-66 win over Florida Atlantic in Diddle Arena Saturday Jan. 19, 2019.

Alec Jessie

The WKU men’s basketball team finds itself rising atop the conference leaderboard heading into the final week of the scheduled portion of Conference USA play.

Even with head coach Rick Stansbury out due to a back issue, the Hilltoppers scraped out two road wins last week against Rice and North Texas. WKU has begun to find its groove at the right time, winning seven of the last eight games.

Freshman center Charles Bassey said he liked how the team responded whenever it learned of Stansbury’s absence from the sidelines.

“We responded good,” Bassey said after Saturday’s win at North Texas. “It’s been tough, especially at the beginning when we lost the string of games in a row, but we’re doing good right now. We just got to believe in ourselves. That’s it.”

As a result, the Hilltoppers have jumped all the way up to third in the conference standings at 8-4, tying with North Texas.

The ascension into the top five seemed unlikely three weeks ago. The Hilltoppers were in the midst of a three-game losing streak in which they had at least a 15-point lead in each of the defeats.

After a third consecutive loss to Florida International, Stansbury admitted his team was not prepared to put teams away.

“You got to play with that extra-edge mentality late in games,” Stansbury said. “And we just don’t seem to have the ability to consistently do it. And when you don’t do it, it gets you beat.”

Since the rough three-game stretch, the Hilltoppers have won all but one game, a 62-50 loss at Louisiana Tech.

During the winning streak, which is now up to four after Saturday’s win at North Texas, WKU has found many different ways to win, including using stifling defense against Marshall, forcing 16 turnovers and holding the Thundering Herd to 35 percent shooting. They have also won shootouts with Texas-San Antonio and Rice, reaching 90 points in both contests.

Senior point guard Lamonte Bearden said he saw mental toughness as a key to closing out games as of late.

“I think it just takes grit,” Bearden said after Thursday’s double-overtime victory over Rice. “Like coach tells us, we just got to go out and play together. We never give up on each other and played hard and made a run.”

The Hilltoppers will attempt to extend their winning streak to six at home against Middle Tennessee State on Thursday night and Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday night. After that, WKU will have four games depending on where it places in the standings after Feb. 16.

If the Hilltoppers are in the top five, they will face the other four teams in that section. If they finish sixth through 10th, the Hilltoppers will play the other four teams in that section. The last four teams round out the sections.

Currently, Old Dominion is atop the conference standings with Texas-San Antonio, North Texas, WKU and Southern Miss rounding out the top five.

Mathematically, it is impossible for WKU to finish below seventh place in the standings. However, there are a wide range of outcomes for WKU as it closes out this portion of the schedule.

ODU will clinch first place with a win over last-place Charlotte on Saturday. Second place is in play for the Hilltoppers.

If the Hilltoppers defend home court, they would need both UTSA and North Texas to drop one of their final two contests. Both schools will be on the road for the upcoming week.

Third place is even more attainable should WKU sweep its home slate. If UTSA or North Texas lose a single game this week, the Hilltoppers would climb to third place.

The only scenario in which WKU would fall outside the top five is if it dropped both home games and two of Marshall, Southern Miss or UAB won its final two games.

The final four games, two of which will be home and road games, will be announced after the completion of the current C-USA slate on Feb. 16.

Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at 270-745-6291 and alec.jessie226@top- per.wku.edu. Follow Alec on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie.