C-USA bonus play sets final games for second-place Hilltoppers

Hilltopper guard Lamonte Bearden earns a charge driving through the lane on Feb. 16 at E.A. Diddle Arena. Bearden scored 7 in the 68-60 loss.

Alec Jessie

The WKU men’s basketball team has entered the long-awaited bonus play portion of its schedule. Even after Saturday’s loss to Alabama-Birmingham, the Hilltoppers maintained second place in Conference USA standings with a 9-5 record.

Recapping their performance thus far in conference play, the Hilltoppers have both positives and negatives as March nears.

The Hilltoppers started miserably, losing three of their first four conference games. WKU had at least a 15-point lead in each game but was incapable of finishing.

“You got to finish the game,” head coach Rick Stansbury said after the team blew a 21-0 lead to Old Dominion. “You can’t play for just 10 minutes. You got to finish it.”

With a 1-3 conference record in late January, the Hilltoppers quickly recovered. WKU dominated through January into mid-February, winning eight of its final 10 games.

Defense was a hallmark for the Hilltoppers through their winning stretch. The Hilltoppers rank 100th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com statistics, second only to Old Dominion in C-USA.

WKU has held opponents to 42 percent shooting from the floor and a meager 34 percent from beyond the arc. Over the last 10 games, only twice has a team scored 70 or more points against the Hilltopper defense, with both games going into overtime.

The Hilltoppers have also found different ways to win during the successful stretch. WKU used the free-throw line to outlast Texas-San Antonio, with 81 percent shooting. It used the 3-pointer to put down Middle Tennessee State, with 10 makes from deep. The Hilltoppers also clamped down defensively at North Texas to steal a road win, holding the Mean Green to just 59 points on 34 percent shooting.

“We’re starting to trust each other as players and teammates,” junior wing Jared Savage said after the North Texas game. “Early in the season, it was one person trying to finish the game by themselves. You can’t do that. You got to play together.”

The team has adapted with head coach Rick Stansbury out due to a back injury, going 3-1 in his absence.

Senior guard Lamonte Bearden said the team had to come together in the midst of its coach’s absence.

“We just try to stay together,” Bearden said. “We play together and play for him, and it gives us a spark.”

WKU does have concerns heading into its final four conference games, however.

The Hilltoppers’ offensive play has been a concern even through the winning streak. The Hilltoppers rank a lowly 183rd in adjusted offensive efficiency, which is only seventh among C-USA teams. In the 14 games played thus far in conference, WKU has scored 70 or more in just six contests. It’s gone above 80 points just twice over the same span.

The offense has seen some improvement with Bearden in the starting lineup, but the Hilltoppers have still struggled scoring the ball. WKU is shooting an average 45 percent for the season but a poor 33 percent from 3-point range.

These struggles were at the forefront of Saturday’s loss, with WKU shooting only 37 percent from the floor and a putrid 6 of 27 from the 3-point line.

Even with Bearden starting, the Hilltoppers still have a less-than-stellar turnover to assist ratio on the year, turning the ball over 376 times, while their opponents lost the ball 336 times.

Another issue has recently emerged on the boards. The Hilltoppers have been out-rebounded by their opponents in three of the last four games, and North Texas tied WKU in rebounds at 38 in the other contest. WKU has not out-rebounded an opponent since Feb. 2 when it dominated Texas-El Paso on the glass 41-32.

“There’s no secret to rebounding,” WKU Director of Basketball Operations Talvis Franklin said. “That’s effort. We gotta have more people going to that basketball and go to that rim to rebound the basketball.”

The Hilltoppers get a week off to fix their issues then head to Norfolk, Virginia, to take on Old Dominion. The road trip will continue with a visit to UAB on the last day of February, where the Hilltoppers will look to avenge Saturday’s defeat.

Franklin said the change in format will make no difference in how the team will prepare for the games.

“It’s no different for us,” Franklin said. “Regardless of who we play, we’ll take it one game at a time. We’ll go back, and we’re going to go to work when the actual schedule comes out.”

Conference play will finish up with home games on March 3 and 6 against Southern Mississippi and UTSA. The Hilltoppers are 2-2 thus far against their remaining opponents.

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