Thompson, large crowd were keys to conference win

WKU forward Moustapha Diagne (12) gives good luck to WKU guard Josh Anderson (4) at the free throw line during the game against Marshall on Saturday, Jan. 27 in E.A. Diddle Arena. In Anderson’s 10 minutes of playing time, he totaled four points including a dunk in the first half. The Hilltoppers won the game 85-74.

Sam Porter

All week leading up to the Marshall game, sickness was an issue going around the WKU men’s basketball team. In the Hilltoppers’ 66-62 loss to Middle Tennessee on Jan. 20, graduate transfer guard Darius Thompson was battling illness and, as a result, the team’s leading scorer wasn’t as much of a factor in the biggest game of the season. But a healthy Thompson in this past Saturday’s game versus Marshall proved to be a major difference in the Hilltoppers’ 85-74 win in front of a second consecutive sellout crowd in Diddle Arena. The former Virginia guard scored 20 points, grabbed six rebounds and recorded three assists while playing 38 minutes.

“My trainers told me all week to just lay in bed and rest,” Thompson said. “He didn’t want me to stick around much because there’s been a bug going around. The locker room had to get cleaned out and everything. We didn’t do too much contact-wise during practice.”

Although Thompson was healthy in time for tipoff, the same wasn’t true for junior guard Lamonte Bearden. The Buffalo transfer didn’t practice all week. Freshman guard Jake Ohmer got the start in Bearden’s place despite his recent struggles and scored 12 points, going 2-for-3 from 3-point land.

“Everyone knows Jake has been struggling the last few games,” Thompson said. “It was huge to see him come out and play with so much more confidence. In practice, when we run a play where Jake shoots the ball and he misses, coach will make him shoot it over and over until he makes it.”

Another factor in the win over Marshall was the crowd. Head coach Rick Stansbury mentioned after the Marshall win how disappointing it was not to get the win over MTSU in front of the first sellout crowd in Diddle Arena since he took over as head coach. Stansbury has said multiple times how badly he wants to see Diddle Arena packed at every home game, and on Saturday, he was able to deliver a victory in hopes of bringing more sellout crowds to Diddle. Stansbury and players both were complimentary of the fan base’s impact during Saturday night’s win over Marshall.

“When you get used to doing it every game [playing in front of a packed house], and your players learn that feeling every game — I will promise you this, students and fans can be the difference in winning and losing,” Stansbury said. “Tonight, the last five minutes of the game, the students and the fans were the difference. We fed off of them; they gave us the energy to go make those plays and that’s what you’ve got to have.”

Through eight Conference USA games, the Hilltoppers have already played the other top four teams (not including themselves) in the conference and have managed to start out 7-1. Out of WKU’s next seven opponents, only one has a winning record.

“If you told us before the season that we’d be 7-1 right now, we would have taken it,” head coach Rick Stansbury said. “But since we’ve been in it and going through it, we’re disappointed we’re not 8-0. We’ve got UTEP on Thursday and then go over to UTSA—both will be challenges. There’s 10 games left and we’ll take them one at a time.”

WKU hits the road to take on Texas El-Paso (7-14, 2-7 C-USA) on Thursday at 9 p.m. UTEP currently ranks 12th in C-USA.

Reporter Sam Porter can be reached at 270-799-8247 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @SammyP14.