Toppers struggle defensively, drop two straight on the road

WKU senior guard Trency Jackson (3) breaks into the lane during the first half of the Hilltoppers’ matchup against Conference USA opponent UTSA. The Toppers would go on to win the game 83-74, remaining undefeated in conference play. Nick Wagner/HERALD

Billy Rutledge

The WKU basketball team achieved a new season-high after facing Conference USA foes UAB and Middle Tennessee State this weekend. The Hilltoppers, who won nine straight games in January and sat in first place in C-USA’s rankings for the first time in program history earlier this season, lost their third and fourth consecutive games this weekend, the most since 2011-12.

Both losses came down to plays with under a minute remaining. At UAB, the Hilltoppers trailed the entire second half until reducing the gap to four with 24 seconds remaining. But, strong free throw shooting (85 percent) from the Blazers proved too much for the Hilltoppers, who were on the verge of overcoming a 16-point deficit in the final five minutes.

The 71-66 loss came after quality performances from senior guard T.J. Price and junior forward Aleksej Rostov. Price scored 11 of his game-high 22 points in the first half, while Rostov scored seven points and grabbed six rebounds in the same half, compared to his ten and seven total.

“(T.J. Price) was aggressive, he came out aggressive early. It was good to see him back on track,” Head Coach Ray Harper said on the Hilltopper IMG Sports Network after the game. “George, he played hard. He just has to slow down. When he slows down, he’s terrific for us. We have to play through him. We are a different team when we can get him the ball and let him go to work inside.”

The Hilltoppers did exactly that in their second game of the week, the 130th meeting at MTSU. The game was dictated by impeccable shooting from the Blue Raiders and WKU’s two senior stars: Price and George Fant. 

Price led all players with 24 points, while Fant was much more involved in the offensive scoring at 19 points and grabbing 12 rebounds for his 11th double-double of the season.

The Blue Raiders, who have won eight of the last nine games against the Hilltoppers, shot 68.2 percent (15-22) from the field in the first half, but only led by three. WKU hung around to force an interesting final minute. WKU missed two 3-pointers with under 10 seconds left, losing the match 68-66 and falling to 16-10, 9-5 C-USA.

“We’re starting to play better. We just have to get over the hump. Almost is not good enough,” Harper said on the Hilltopper IMG Sports Network after the loss Sunday. “We came out early in the game, I thought, defensively. Once again, we were locked in, did a great job and we kind of relaxed,” he said. “The biggest thing is we had some opportunities right there, a couple key plays, and we didn’t make them happen.”

The losses dropped WKU from third to fifth in the C-USA standings and was the final stretch of a three-game road swing. The Hilltoppers’ next two games will be at Diddle Arena against Florida Atlantic on Thursday, Feb. 26 and Florida International on Saturday, Feb. 28, both of which the Hilltoppers have beaten earlier this season.

Coming back home for the first time in nearly three weeks, Harper knows the importance of the upcoming games.

“We got two at home this week. Need to go back, continue to get better and see what happens.”