Hilltopper tournament starts with Marshall

Western Kentucky University men’s basketball head coach, Ray Harper and senior forward George Fant, prepare for the first round Conference USA tournament matchup against Marshall University at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama, Tuesday, March 10, 2015. Luke Franke/HERALD

Billy Rutledge

The WKU basketball team has had ups and downs in its inaugural season in Conference USA. The Hilltoppers (19-11, 12-6 C-USA) have strung together a nine game winning streak and defeated it’s first ranked opponent at home since 1986 while also losing four consecutive games for the first time since 2012. 

But now in postseason play, WKU’s focus shifts to their first opponent in the Conference USA tournament, 12th seeded Marshall, who the Hilltoppers split the season series with. Two teams that both beat each other at home will look for final bragging rights on a neutral court, Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama, and looking to move on to face UAB in the second round.

“I think we’re ready,” Head Coach Ray Harper said. “It’s that time of year, it’s win and advance, lose and go home. So gotta be ready to play.”

WKU is coming off one of its worst defeats of the season, a 75-52 thumping on the road at Old Dominion. But that loss hasn’t wavered the confidence of a Hilltopper team that has faced adversity in the past. After starting the season 1-3, WKU then won 15 of its next 18 games and sat atop the C-USA standings for a brief time. Even after losing four straight in the month of February, WKU rallied to win its next three games to put them in the fifth seed of the C-USA tournament.

Under Harper, the Hilltoppers have become a dangerous team in the month of March. WKU is 8-1 in its three conference tournaments under Harper and has made two NCAA tournament appearances in 2012 and 2013. Given, those wins came when the Hilltoppers were in the Sun Belt Conference. 

“Right now it’s more about us and not so much about our opponent,” Harper said. “Bottom line is we gotta do a good job of taking care of the basketball – and that’s always key in tournament time. And just be efficient, and hopefully we can do that over the course of the next few days.”

The first time Marshall and WKU met this season was the inaugural C-USA game for the Hilltoppers at Diddle Arena. The first program win in C-USA history came off the back of senior guard T.J. Price who scored a game-high 25 points, tied a career-high with seven assists, and tacked on six rebounds and four steals. Price’s performance was one of many impressive games he played that earned him a spot on the Conference-USA First Team at the end of this year.

The second matchup between the foes was in Huntington, West Virginia and didn’t come kindly to the Hilltoppers. The 87-82 loss was the second of a four game losing skid for WKU, who were dominated by the two primary scorers for the Herd: Forward Ryan Taylor and guard Austin Loop. The duo combined for 35 points and frustrated the Hilltoppers on the defensive end in front of a hostile crowd.

Marshall’s third-leading scorer, guard Justin Edmonds will be out with a knee injury this week. Edmonds scored 15 points in the win over WKU February 14th and will be a focus WKU will look to take advantage of during the tournament.

Now with their seasons on the line, the teams will meet for a final time this season at 6 p.m. hundreds of miles away from home.

“Just gotta be mentally prepared, really,” Price said. “One thing is, it’s not gonna be easy. It’s really gonna be tiring, a little bit, mentally-wise and if we just get through that, everything we did in the summer, physical-wise, put us ready for this moment.”