Toppers put away Miners to snap losing streak

Junior forward Justin Johnson (23) jumps to block UTEP guard Dominic Artis (15) during WKU’s 65-62 victory over UTEP on Thursday Jan. 26, 2017 at E.A. Diddle Arena. Johnson made recovered 12 rebounds.

Matthew Stewart

In its first game back in Diddle Arena in nearly three weeks, WKU picked up a 65-62 win over the Miners of Texas El Paso behind senior guard Pancake Thomas’s 25 points on Thursday night.

Thomas started off his night going five for five from three-point land while ending the first half with 19 points. The senior guided the Tops to a 20-point lead in the first half as WKU led 28-8 at the 10:25 mark.

“I would say before the game,” Thomas said of when he knew he was in a rhythm. “I was just getting shots up and like most of them were going in. I was doing a competition doing like best out of 10 and I was getting like eights and nines so I knew it was on tonight.”

The fans in Diddle were cheering on the Toppers loud and proud as the group on the court took care of business early and often. Head Coach Rick Stansbury was pleased with the way his squad jumped to an early lead.

“I was concerned UTEP was coming off some wins, had some confidence coming in here,” Stansbury said. “We were coming off some losses and your minds are very fragile. I was proud of the way our guys came out and started that game.”

Heading into halftime, the Hilltoppers led 46-29. Senior guard Que Johnson started the Tops off on the right foot with a three-ball to go up 49-31, but the Hilltoppers lost some steam after that. 

“For 20 minutes, we were pretty good,” Stansbury said. “We were very aggressive. The first stat that you have to look at that backs that up, we shot 19 free throws the first half. Second half, we really shot two free throws. The stats show four but two of them came because they just fouled us. Only two of them came out of aggression. We gotta find a way to come out of that locker room …and have a killer instinct. I mean put a foot on somebody’s throat. Forget that score. And we didn’t do that very well.”

Stansbury said that coming out of the half, he expects his team to build on the advantage they have given themselves in the opening stage of the game.

“You gotta come out of that locker room and forget that score,” he said. “I mean today’s game, it doesn’t take but three trips and that score changes. I’ve gotta do a better job changing my speech or whatever it is because we sure didn’t come out of the locker room with the kind of urgency that you have to have consistently to beat the good teams.”

UTEP capitalized on the absence of the mentality that Stansbury talked about, cutting the lead to nine early in the second half.  

“Their bigs, early in that second half, outran us down the court,” Stansbury said. “But the positive thing is we found a way to hang on, get a ‘W’. This time of year, hey, none of them are ever gonna be pretty with us. We’ll take the ‘W’ and get better from it and learn from it and get ready for the next one on Saturday.”

UTEP big man, Matt Willms made use of his seven-foot-one frame to finish the night with 27 points shooting 13-16 from the field.

 “They got him easy buckets,” junior forward Justin Johnson said. “I mean those guards penetrate and dump it off to him and then again, the kid’s 7 foot 2. They do a really good job on that high-low. He finishes well around the basket, he had a good game.”

With 7:30 to play, the Miners had cut the WKU lead to just five points. A 59-54 game had the Tops on their heels.

“You start like kind of pressing like, ‘we need to get a bucket and we need to get stops’,” Thomas said. “You get kind of get anxious to get buckets and stops and you might end up forcing like a bad shot.”

The Tops managed to get just the right amount of shots to fall and get the stops they needed on defense to put the Miners away late. 

“It’s an ugly win, but it feels great to get a win,” Thomas said.

Coach Stansbury noted that the game was close in the end and exciting for the fans as he noticed that Diddle didn’t begin to empty until the final buzzer.

“No one leaves early,” Stansbury said. “Nothing is safe.”

Thomas was the spark WKU needed in the first half and the piece that seemed to carry the Tops through the night.

“[Pancake’s] a guy who’s been playing well for us,” Stansbury said. “He comes to practice, he shoots the same every day. Shoots game shots every time he shoots the basketball. He does it with consistency.”

Thomas had eight rebounds and one assist to go along with his 25 points. Justin Johnson was the only other player to finish in double figures for the Tops. The Hazard, Kentucky, native ended his night with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Senior guard Que Johnson grabbed 10 boards while scoring six points .

The win for the Toppers comes after a four-game losing streak. WKU is now 7-1 at home and has six of its last 10 regular season games in Diddle.

“It feels good to win anytime you win,” Justin Johnson said. “You know, get another one Saturday and the best thing is the … next six of 10 are at home out of the conference so that’s a big thing heading in to Birmingham too gaining more confidence.”

WKU is back in action this Saturday when they take on the University of Texas San Antonio. Tip-off is set for 3 p.m.