Hilltoppers defeat KWC in contested exhibition

Western Kentucky’s Chris Harrison-Docks (51) celebrates a 3-pointer as Kentucky Wesleyan’s Jordan Jacks’ (5) waits to receive a pass during Friday’s game at E.A. Diddle Arena. Harrison-Docks scored 21 points in the Hilltoppers 75-68 win. Nick Wagner/HERALD

John Reecer

The WKU men’s basketball team defeated Kentucky Wesleyan College on Friday night in Diddle Arena by a score of 75-68, but the Hilltoppers got a strong challenge from the eight-time NCAA Division II national champions.

The Panthers led for most of the first half as the Hilltoppers struggled early with a handful of turnovers and shaky man-to-man defense. However, WKU withstood the test and wore Kentucky Wesleyan down late in the second half.

“We could’ve made that game a little easier by not turning the ball over so much,” Head Coach Ray Harper said. “I was happy with how our team responded. We were down eight in the first half, and I was not going to call a timeout. They were going to have to play through it because I wanted to see how they would respond.”

Scheduled as an exhibition contest, KWC proved early that it is more than capable of competing against Division I talent; the Panthers currently field seven transfers from Division I schools.

“That’s a really, really good NAIA team,” sophomore forward Justin Johnson said. “They came into the night with several Division I transfers, so we prepared for this game big time just like any other big game. We got tested tonight, and we still have a long way to go, but we got that win.”

Johnson powered the struggling Hilltoppers, recording 10 points in the first half due in part to strong passing from junior guard Fredrick Edmond.

The combination helped WKU take a two point lead into halftime as Edmond notched four assists in the first half.

“I’ve said before that an underrated part of his game was his passing,” Harper said. “However, it’s really not about his ability to pass but rather his willingness to pass. He would not care if he scored one point or none.”

In the second half, KWC continued to give the Hilltoppers fits — particularly on offense — with three different Panthers scoring double-digit points.

WKU allowed multiple straight-line drives to the basket that helped the Panthers score 45 of their 68 points in the paint.

“The effort was there tonight on defense, but we are getting extended on the perimeter, and that’s on us as coaches,” Harper said. “Our first rotation was there at times, but we have to be better at our second rotation on defense.”

Despite the struggles on defense, redshirt junior guard Chris Harrison-Docks powered the Hilltoppers in the second half on offense.

He notched 18 of his 21 points in the second half but said after the game that individual scoring is not nearly as important as the team’s finished product.

“That’s not what we worry about as a team,” Harrison-Docks said. “Whoever leads us in scoring is not important.”

Despite the leading scorer not being as important as the team’s play, Harrison-Dock’s experience in the Hilltopper program allowed him to take control of the game in the later stages.

“I know my team, and I know when it’s time for someone to step up and score,” Harrison-Docks said.

Redshirt senior forward Nigel Snipes enjoyed an efficient evening with nine points and seven rebounds in just seven minutes of action.

“He has done it ever since he has been back in August,” Harper said. “He is playing with great confidence at a high level, and it could not happen to a better kid.”

The victory ends the Hilltoppers’ exhibition schedule. WKU’s first official game will be Nov. 14 against Campbellsville University at Diddle Arena.

“This is still a brand new team, and it’s a work in progress,” Coach Harper said. “We are going to get better with guys like we have who are willing to be coached and who will continue to work hard.”