Tops lose third straight at UAB

Junior forward Aleksej Rostov keeps the ball away from UTEP’s Vince Hunter (32) during the team’s matchup at Diddle Arena Thursday, Jan. 22. WKU would go on to win an overtime thriller 71-66 to remain undefeated in conference play. Luke Franke/HERALD

Billy Rutledge

Coming off their first two-game losing streak since mid-November, the WKU basketball team was hopeful going into Thursday’s matchup against the struggling UAB Blazers. Two polar opposite halfs later, and the Hilltoppers fell away from home for the sixth time this season 71-66.

Led by the play of senior forward T.J. Price and junior forward Aleksej Rostov, WKU shot 4-8 from three point range at the halfway mark and led the Blazers 31-28. WKU shot 41 percent in the half and looked confident as the team was 11-1 this season when leading at halftime. Price scored 11 of his game-high 22 points in the first half while Rostov scored seven points and grabbed six rebounds in the half compared to his ten and seven total.

It didn’t take long for the Blazers to reach their first lead of the game after the break, scoring 10 straight points two different times throughout the half. Out-scoring WKU in the second half 43-35, the Blazers used their depth as well as their balanced offense to their advantage. Ten different players scored for UAB including four players who scored double digit points.  UAB’s bench outscored WKU’s bench 32-9. 

The Blazers led by as many as 16 with 5:31 remaining in the second half before the Hilltoppers offense reappeared. A barrage of late three point attempts allowed WKU to pull within 68-64 with :24 seconds remaining, but the deficit was too much as UAB shot 85 percent from the free throw line to put away the Hilltoppers.

“I thought the first half we did a really good job on the defensive end,” Harper said on the Hilltopper IMG Sports Network. “I thought our rotations were good, guys stuck to scouting reports and we did a pretty good job on the glass. Second half, not nearly the same story. They beat us up, second and third shots, beat us to some lose balls and made us pay.”

“We just have to find a way to win on the road,” Rostov said. “It’s tough, but no one feels sorry for us and we just have to find a way.”

Freshman guard DJ Clayton earned his first start of his career Thursday. He finished with eight points and six rebounds in place for sophomore guard Chris Harrison-Docks, who finished with five points despite not scoring until 1:25 was left in the second half.

Senior forward George Fant struggled inside for the Hilltoppers. Fant was one of three players for WKU to score double digit points with ten, but the big man grabbed six rebounds and was visibly frustrated by the defense of UAB.

“(T.J. Price) was aggressive, he came out aggressive early. It was good to see him back on track,” Harper said. “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.”

WKU’s last game of a three game road stretch will be Sunday, Feb. 22 at Middle Tennessee State.