Hilltoppers look for two wins in final stages of season

WKU senior guard T.J. Price dribbles to the lane against Conference USA opponent Rice Feb. 7, 2015 at E.A. Diddle Arena. The Hilltoppers would go on to lose to the Owls 72-68 in only their third home loss of the season. (Luke Franke/Herald)

Billy Rutledge

The WKU basketball team plays its final two regular season games later this week against Charlotte and Old Dominion. Despite boasting an 18-10 overall record with an 11-5 mark in league play, the Hilltoppers’ postseason fate is still a mystery as they are tied for third place in Conference USA with Old Dominion and UTEP. 

Expectations have shifted multiple times throughout the season. 

In November, WKU played six non-conference road games and preseason National Invitation tournaments to sit at 3-3. The team had yet to establish itself. 

In December and January, the Hilltoppers found their stride. 

The transition from 2014 to 2015 saw WKU rattle off a season-high nine-game winning streak and a close defeat to then No. 4 ranked Louisville. Seniors George Fant and TJ Price’s saw a spike in production as well—Fant with eight straight double-double performances and Price leading C-USA in scoring from beyond the arc. 

The Hilltoppers went 13-3 in the span and led C-USA for a brief period after defeating then No. 25 Old Dominion (their first ranked opponent at home since 1986). 

It was not just Fant and Price lighting up the stat columns. The team found a sense of self. 

Redshirt sophomore guard Chris Harrison-Docks sustained double-digit numbers while sophomore Ben Lawson evolved from a bench player to one of WKU’s most productive big men. 

It was during this stretch WKU looked like the team to beat in C-USA. An at-large bid seemed like a possibility, and WKU played at a level of basketball that the team will hope to re-produce this weekend and later this month. 

WKU started February at home with a win against North Texas. It was a home loss to the struggling Rice Owls that WKU’s play began to worsen. It was the first of four consecutive losses, a feat that had not occurred since 2011-12.

The Hilltoppers recovered with two bounce-back wins at home against FAU and FIU. In the process, WKU dropped from first to fourth in the C-USA standings, saw their chances of an at-large bid vanish and the hopes of a third consecutive 20 win season seemed lost.

The two most recent wins give WKU a glimmer of hope. WKU got back to old habits, winning a close 71-68 game against FAU, taking care of business on Senior Night against FIU, a game that saw the trio of seniors (Fant, Price and Trency Jackson) score 37 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists in their final victory at Diddle Arena. 

“Just continue to come to practice working hard,” Jackson said. “We just have to keep stringing together good days at practice—good day after good day. Good day after good day, and once we do that, we just feel ourselves getting better and you feel the confidence and the mood change. That’s WKU basketball.”

The Hilltoppers’ next task will be establishing a road presence. After three consecutive losses on the road and a 4-7 record away from Diddle Arena, WKU’s final two games of the season are at Charlotte and at Old Dominion. The game against the Monarchs, who WKU defeated at home this season 72-65, has the chance to decide seeding in the C-USA tournament. With the top four teams in C-USA gaining a first round bye, WKU and Old Dominion will battle for the final two spots.

WKU’s success has come in spurts and Head Coach Ray Harper knows what it’s like to be the underdog going into the month of March— it’s just about putting it all together at the right time.

“On the road, it’s all about mental toughness,” Harper said. “You have to take care of the basketball … Hopefully, we can have three good days of practice leading into the Charlotte game. You want to be playing your best basketball, right now. We’ve had lots of opportunities, and once again we control our own destiny.”