Hilltoppers split home weekend to stay tied for first in C-USA

Western Kentucky University senior Trency Jackson drives past North Texas sophomore DeAndre Harris during WKU’s victory against North Texas on Thursday Feb. 5, 2015. Photo by Harrison Hill/ WKU HERALD

Billy Rutledge

The WKU basketball team is coming off of two lackluster games from this past weekend. The Hilltoppers narrowly defeated a 9-13 North Texas 65-59 and lost their Saturday contest against the 7-15 Rice Owls 72-68. 

With the team registering its second conference loss and third loss at home for the season, the Hilltoppers’ (16-7, 9-2) RPI has fallen from 69 to 98, and Head Coach Ray Harper and his team’s hopes of obtaining an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament have fallen significantly.

“We just didn’t come out with a sense of urgency in the first half,” senior guard Trency Jackson said after the Rice game. “We can’t win like that. We’ve got to stop doing that. We can’t start games without energy like we started tonight and for the last two games. We have to turn it around.”

With just the second road win for the Owls this season, Rice set the tone early, jumping out to a 43-26 halftime lead. After a 17-point WKU comeback to tie the game halfway through the second half, WKU was unable to seize the opportunity and lost the contest. 

WKU starters scored 65 of the team’s 68 points in the loss, with the other three points coming from sophomore forward Ben Lawson. Jackson led the Hilltoppers in points with 23 total. Seniors T.J. Price and forward George Fant finished with 17 and 11 points, respectably.

Sophomore guard, Chris Harrison-Docks ended with 14 points, but was 3-13 from the field.  

“They got us. They did what they needed too to win the game — give them credit,” Harper said. “We’re a team that, if we’re good on the defensive end, and we are rebounding the basketball, we have a chance to win games. If we are not, we’re a bottom-feeder — middle of the pack at best.”

The last win at Diddle Arena came on Thursday. Their 63-59 victory over the Mean Green of North Texas did not seem like a reality, until late in the game. 

Trailing with 4:04 remaining, WKU finished the game on a 11-0 run to steal a victory from the ninth ranked team in C-USA. This came after the Hilltoppers blew a 31-14 halftime lead and shot what Harper described as a “not pretty” 20.8 percent from three-point range and 38.5 percent from the free throw line.

WKU did see the emergence of Lawson once again in the victory. He proved to be the difference-maker, scoring eight points off the bench, while hauling in four rebounds and five blocks. Lawson energized the Hilltoppers, late with a pair of dunks and an alley-oop slam, to give WKU a four-point lead with 1:17 remaining.

“He’s huge. He’s getting better and better,” Harper said. “He doesn’t understand how good he can be. I think he’s starting to say, ‘you might be right.’”

After the recent events, the Hilltoppers are once again in a three-way tie for first place in the C-USA standings. Louisiana Tech, WKU and UAB all sit at 9-2 in conference play. 

Saturday, the Hilltoppers will hit the road, starting a three-game road stretch at Marshall, a team WKU beat earlier this season. WKU then faces UAB and Middle Tennessee State over the next two weeks, before returning home for the team’s final two games of the season.