Hilltoppers fall in conference standings after defeat

WKU’s guard Fredrick Edmond (25) shoots for two in the seconds of the Hilltoppers’s 66-64 loss to Middle Tennessee State University on Saturday Jan. 30 at E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Ky. Shaban Athuman/HERALD

John Reecer

For the first 31 minutes in Saturday night’s matchup between WKU (12-12) and the University of Texas, El Paso (13-11), the Hilltoppers controlled the game. However, the Miners walked away with a 93-89 victory in overtime as WKU saw its conference record fall to 4-7 on the season.

The Toppers’ lead over UTEP grew to 19 points as they led 70-51 with less than nine minutes left in the contest. The Miners then finished regulation on a 26-7 scoring run, forcing overtime. They outscored WKU 16-12 in the extra period.

“We had every opportunity to win, and we just find ways to not finish,” Head Coach Ray Harper said in a postgame radio interview. “We kept a good gap for 31 minutes, and then in the last eight minutes or so, our defense got too extended. We have been right there, but being right there doesn’t do you any good.”

Critical turnovers and too many missed free throws were the downfall for the Toppers as UTEP scored 24 points off 20 WKU turnovers. WKU also managed to shoot 59.7 percent from the free-throw line as they missed 15 shots from the charity stripe.

“In that second half, made free throws would’ve helped,” Harper said. “We had 20 turnovers, and I know it wasn’t anything that the defense did to cause the turnovers. It has everything to do with us. We just made some really bad decisions, and we have to be better. We have to find a way over the next four weeks to finish some of these [games] off.”

Despite the loss, junior guard Fredrick Edmond played what might have been his best overall game of the season as he recorded 24 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in the contest. However, the guard did go 4-12 from the free-throw line.

“I thought [Edmond] played well,” Harper said. “We just got to work with him this week because he has got to hit some free throws. He was the guy they were trying to foul in the second half, and I think he was 4-12 from the line tonight.”

Senior forward Aleksej Rostov also enjoyed a great game as he notched season highs in four different statistical categories. He scored 13 points while grabbing eight rebounds. He also added six assists in 29 minutes.

“He looked like his old self tonight,” Harper said. “He was active and aggressive, and we went with him a lot. I thought he was our best post player tonight.”

The Toppers’ collapse was seen in front of a sell-out crowd in EL Paso, Texas, as the Miners honored the 50th anniversary of their 1966 National Championship team, which was the first team to start five African-Americans in a college basketball game.

“I guess I got some energy from the environment we had with the big crowd,” Rostov said in a postgame interview. “They just hit every shot that they needed to. They made big plays, and you got to give them credit.”

WKU’s unfortunate collapse followed a big win on the road over the University of Texas, San Antonio on Thursday night; the Toppers won 83-71.

Top performers included sophomore forward Justin Johnson, who scored 14 points, and Edmond, who added 13 points, six rebounds and four assists.

WKU will be back in action next Saturday, Feb. 13, against Marshall at 7 p.m. in Diddle Arena after a weeklong break.

“They [the Herd] have a lot of offensive threats,” Rostov added. “All five guys can shoot the ball, which means that they are extremely difficult to guard, so it will be a challenge.”