Seniors thrive, say goodbye in win over FIU

WKU senior guard, Trency Jackson, penetrates a block to complete a two-point layup against Florida International University, at E.A. Diddle Arena, Saturday Feb. 28, 2015. Jackson scored 17 points during the last home game of the season. The Hilltoppers won 77-61. Jeff Brown/HERALD

Billy Rutledge

After losing four consecutive games for the first time since 2011-12, the WKU basketball team found their offensive spark once again and defeated Conference USA opponents FAU and FIU for the second time this season. The wins were marked by quality play from WKU’s three seniors, Trency Jackson, T.J. Price and George Fant, who also said goodbye to WKU fans in their final game at their Senior Night, Saturday at Diddle Arena.

Saturday’s 77-61 victory over FIU was the resurgence of the Hilltoppers that fans have been waiting to see since mid-January. WKU had 21 assists to 15 turnovers. Their defense held FIU to 39 percent shooting and they outscored the Panthers in bench points 32-10. Ben Lawson, Justin Johnson and Aleksej Rostov all came off the bench to score 9 points each. Scoring when the starters are off the court is a key area in which WKU has been striving to improve.

The three seniors didn’t disappoint in their final game at Diddle Arena. The trio combined for 37 points, 14 rebounds, and 12 assists. Jackson led the way, tying a career high with five 3-pointers in the first half. He led all players with 17 points in the game. 

“I thought everyone really contributed,” Head Coach Ray Harper said. “We got back to moving the basketball …  It abandoned us for a little bit, but we got back to it today. Hopefully, we can continue it as we go down the stretch,” he said. “I saw it with all the kids tonight. They were excited about each other. We played the game the right way — the ball was moving. The ball was being shared. At times, we made it look easy on the offensive end.”

Another impressive performance by WKU’s seniors proved to be enough to defeat FAU, Thursday at Diddle Arena. The trio shot a combined 19-31 from the floor and a team-high of 17 points each. The effort was enough to overcome a 29-32 halftime deficit and defeat the Owls for the second time this season 71-68.

The two wins came at a much needed time for the Hilltoppers. Since dropping out of first place in the C-USA standings in February, WKU now sits in a three-way tie for third place with UTEP and Old Dominion. WKU’s final two games of the regular season will be on the road Thursday, March 5 at Charlotte and Saturday, March 7 at Old Dominion. The showdown with the Monarchs, on Saturday, will be a tough test for the Hilltoppers, with first round bye implications in the C-USA tournament on the line.

“I told them just don’t have any regrets,” Harper said. “Don’t, ‘I wish I would have worked harder on Monday’ or ‘I wish I would have done it’. No regrets, lets go play as hard as we possibly can and play together and lets see what happens.”

Before the game on Saturday, Fant, Price and Jackson were honored for their time at WKU. Jackson has been with the program for two years, transferring from Texas Tech. He has become the vocal and defensive leader of a Division 1 basketball team, a dream of his when he was younger.

Price and Fant, who have spent all four years starting at WKU, were dubbed, before the game, as “two of the greatest players to ever wear the red and white.” Price currently sits in eighth place on WKU’s all-time leading scorers list, while Fant is in 14th place. The two have been a part of 74 WKU wins, two NCAA Tournament teams and two conference tournament championships during their time at WKU.

A group of 7,119 fans were at Diddle Arena to say goodbye to the seniors, the second biggest crowd this season. With only two regular season games to go before postseason play, the seniors will take time to appreciate all that has happened in their careers.

“There was so much energy in the building,” Jackson said. “It was unbelievable. Perfect way to go out.”

“I’m just happy,” Price said. “Real happy. Classic style. Thankful really — just blessed. Couldn’t have asked for nothing better. I’m just happy and blessed.”