March Madness: Hilltopper Edition

WKU senior Pancake Thomas (12) attempts a three-point shot during WKU’s 79-72 win over Rice on March 4, 2017 in Diddle Arena. Thomas finished the game with 11 total points.

Matthew Stewart

After a long regular season full of high expectations and unknowns, WKU is finally headed to Birmingham, Alabama to put up a fight in the Conference USA Tournament.

The team was able to build some momentum this past week in conference play as they prepare for the postseason.

Thursday the Toppers got a win over the Mean Green of University of North Texas (8-22) by a final score of 74-63.

Senior guard Pancake Thomas willed the Tops to a victory with a game-high 23 points. Senior forward Anton Waters had a career night with 15 points, and he also scored the first eight points of the night for WKU.

Saturday night was senior night for the Hilltoppers. The team hosted the Rice University Owls (21-10) in Diddle Arena.

Four WKU players finished in double figures. Junior forward Justin Johnson led the way with 24 points and 13 rebounds. The second team C-USA performer also finished with four assists, one block and one steal.

Waters matched his career high with 15 points, grabbed five boards and one steal. Seniors Que Johnson and Thomas each finished with 11 points.

WKU led by as many as 15 points in the second half. This performance against a team that has 20 wins to their name is a good look for the Toppers headed to the postseason.

After leading by eight at the half the Tops finished their opponent. They held on despite the Owls making a run late in the game. At the end of the night the Tops were victorious taking down Rice 79-72 in front of 4,823 fans.

“We had a great crowd today. We appreciate the fans, they helped us down the stretch when we needed it,” Head Coach Rick Stansbury said.

Now the task is totally different. The Tops don’t have to be the best team for a full season. They have to be the best team for four days. For the Toppers to reach the NCAA tournament they have to win four games in four days.

“Now no longer do we have to be the best team for 30 games. It’s a brand new season now. We just gotta find a way to be the best team for four days,” Stansbury said.

First up for the Tops is the eight vs nine seed matchup on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. WKU is the eight seed and will face off against the Road Runners of the University of Texas San Antonio.

If the Tops can take down UTSA they will have a date with the C-USA front-runner Middle Tennessee State University.

MTSU, ranked 25th in the USA TODAY Coaches poll, is the one seed in the tournament and they are sporting a 27-4 record. All eyes are on the Blue Raiders in Birmingham. Head Coach Kermit Davis and his team are the favorite to win the tourney.

The Tops have fallen to MTSU twice this season and will be hungry for a third chance if they can advance past the first round of the tournament.

“We’re gonna go down there, play our game, do what we do and the rest will take care of itself,” Justin Johnson said.

The team knows they are the underdog and will be playing with momentum and a chip on their shoulder when playing for a spot in the illustrious NCAA tournament.

“Now we gotta play every game like it’s our last. We gotta play every game like it’s a championship game cause we want that ring,” Waters said. “We gotta go out there and play for each other, our program and for our fans out there that’s watching. We gotta bring a ring back for our hometown now, it’s for them.” 

Reporter Matthew Stewart can be reached at 859-797-3140 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @MES_WKU22.