The WKU basketball team took care of business Wednesday in the first round of the Conference USA tournament, defeating Marshall 59-45 in a defensive slug fest. But before the game—before WKU out-scored Marshall 33-25 in the second half and before the Hilltoppers had to play the majority of the game without senior leader George Fant (in foul trouble, only played 12 minutes), Head Coach Ray Harper knew his team was in good shape.
“I could have told you when I walked into the room tonight, I couldn’t have told you if we were going to win or lose but I knew what I was going to get,” Harper said. “At shootaround today, they were all business and that’s what you want as a coach; you want a team that’s all business”
Taking care of business was easier said than done, but the No. 5 seeded Hilltoppers defeated an opponent who they had split the regular season series with.
“Proud of the way our guys competed,” Harper said. “George Fant plays 12 minutes and we found a way to have other guys step up.”
One of those other guys was redshirt junior Nigel Snipes. Snipes, who has been reduced to a bench role throughout the season and hasn’t played too many minutes, came off the bench to play 20 minutes, score five points and lead the team with eight rebounds. Snipes was one of many players that stepped up when Fant entered foul trouble early, picking up his second a third fouls near halftime.
“I’m really proud of Nigel Snipes,” Harper said. “I think it says a lot about his character that he was ready to roll and he ends up being our leading rebounder. He did not surprise me with the way he played. “
“I felt like when we left Bowling Green, he and DJ Clayton were going to be key for us and I thought tonight was his turn. I thought he was aggressive, sometimes Nigel isn’t as aggressive as I would like but at the same time he hasn’t played a lot of minutes. He went in in a big time game and was ready and that’s what I’m talking about, about his character. He’s a great kid, a great kid to coach and he was big for us tonight.”
Along with Snipes, sophomore guard Chris Harrison-Docks shined when the Hilltoppers traveled through some shooting woes. CHD ended with a game-high 18 points hitting three three pointers while finishing with four assists and only one turnover. Senior guard T.J. Price struggled early but helped the Hilltoppers go from shooting 29 percent in the first half to 42 percent in the second, a huge reason why WKU went on to pull away from the Herd. Price scored 13 points, grabbed seven rebounds and ended with four assists.
Senior guard Trency Jackson was the final piece of the puzzle, his three three’s and 11 total points was enough to break Marshall’s comeback hopes and advance the Hilltoppers to the next round.
“We go to work everyday and coach Harper always says ‘when your number is called, be ready,'” Snipes said. “That’s why you always work hard in practice just to be ready for your opportunity.”
WKU’s defense stepped up when called upon as well, holding the Herd to their lowest scoring total of the season at 45. NBA prospect Ryan Taylor was reduced to 4-20 from the field and 0-7 from beyond the arc. In total, Marshall shot 30 percent from the field and 15 percent from deep, both insufficient numbers in postseason play.
The defense will have to continue to be stout as the Hilltoppers next opponent, UAB, also defeated WKU this season. During the Hilltoppers season-long four game losing streak, UAB defeated WKU 71-66 in Birmingham, not at the same arena the two will meet Thursday but the same city. But much has changed since that loss and WKU, who are 4-2 since that game, come in with new found confidence from a tournament win.
“They are a very good basketball team,” Harper said. “They have a lot of size on the interior, last time we played them they had 11 or 12 blocked shots against us. I told our kids and I’m sure UAB feels the same way, I think we are a different team than we were three weeks ago when we played them. It should be a good basketball team, we’re going to have to be ready.”
WKU plays the number four seed UAB Thursday at 6 p.m. in a win or go home situation. The Hilltoppers win Wednesday gave Harper his 20th win of the season and is now the only coach in program history to win 20 games in their first three full seasons at the helm.