Turning a corner: Hilltoppers come out of weekend with optimism

WKU’s forward (23), Justin Johnson, puts up a shot during the first period of a basketball game against MTSU at E.A. Diddle Arena on Jan. 30. The Hilltoppers lost the game to MTSU with a final score of 66-64. Emily Kask/Herald

Matthew Stewart

With an 11-11 record, the WKU men’s basketball team is still looking to improve on the season.

With a win Thursday in Diddle Arena against University of Alabama-Birmingham, the No. 1 team in the conference, WKU took a positive turn after dropping three of its last four games.

Thursday night’s 69-62 victory over the Blazers also ended the nation’s longest active win streak: 14 straight victories.

With some newly found chemistry and confidence surrounding the team, the Hilltoppers were ready to welcome their archrival Middle Tennessee.

MTSU came to Bowling Green Saturday night fielding a 15-5 record as the No. 2 team in the league.

A season-high 5,259 total fans packed Diddle Arena to cheer on the Hilltoppers as they faced off against the Blue Raiders.

However, those fans witnessed a heartbreaking 66-64 loss despite the effort Head Coach Ray Harper and company put forth.

Freshman guard Chris McNeal lead WKU in scoring with 18 points while junior guard Fredrick Edmond notched a double-double as he scored 14 points and earned 12 rebounds.

“I thought we competed,” Harper said. “I thought we gave ourselves our chance, and they [McNeal and Edmond] really played well.”

Even with the defeat, there was noticeable improvement among the Toppers; they were just 2 points away from taking down the two highest ranked teams in C-USA in back-to-back games.

Had the team played as well in the first half as it did in the second half, WKU would have walked away with its fourth conference victory.

The Toppers scored only 18 points in the half while giving up 36. In the second quarter, however, they managed to shoot 51 percent from the field, scoring 46 points while giving up 30.

“We always come out and fight in the first half and the second half,” Edmond said. “Tonight we just didn’t come out with enough fight in the first half.”

While the defeat was certainly disheartening for WKU, the players seem to feel like things are starting to fall into place, especially on the defensive end of the floor.

“In the last game and the second half of this game, I felt like we’re the best team in the conference, and I strongly believe that,” McNeal said. “As long as we listen to coach and we do what all the coaches say — we execute, play defense, get stops and play as one — we should be fine.”

With several teams in the league dropping games to lower ranked programs, it is apparent almost any team in the conference can take down any opponent on a given night.

“It is just going to be a fight for seeding and who can win the regular season championship,” MTSU Head Coach Kermit Davis said. “Then, I’m telling you, No. 1 through No. 8 or 9 can win that thing for sure.”

Up next for the Toppers will be a short road trip to Texas as they play at the University of Texas at San Antonio on Thursday. They will then play the University of Texas at El Paso on Saturday night.

Even with optimistic performances in its last two contests, WKU must still figure out its road woes as the university is currently 2-9 on the season away from Diddle Arena.

With their upcoming opponents posting a combined record of 15-29, the Toppers must capitalize on these lower-ranked teams in the conference if they want to move up the rankings and have a chance in the C-USA tournament.