Historic start for Tops in C-USA

Senior guard Trency Jackson (3) shoots a three-point shot in the face of UTEP’s Omega Harris (2), during overtime, on Thursday, Jan. 22, in Diddle Arena. Jackson led the Hilltoppers in scoring with 14 points and led the team to a 71-66 victory in overtime. Luke Franke/HERALD

Billy Rutledge

The WKU men’s basketball program is making historic strides in its first season in the Conference USA. The Hilltoppers (14-5, 7-0 C-USA) are riding a nine-game win streak and are atop the Conference USA standings after a weekend sweep of UTEP and UTSA.

WKU’s 7-0 conference start is its best since the 1969-70 season, when the Hilltoppers went 14-0 in league play.

The Hilltoppers are showing their toughness after being picked to finish seventh in the preseason Conference USA standings.

“In the preseason, I had the opportunity to watch them every day, who you’re seeing now is who they were— We’ve gotten back to who we were preseason,” Head Coach Ray Harper said after defeating Old Dominion. “They love playing together, they play for each other and they don’t care who scores and because of it, we’re winning some basketball games and look pretty darn good doing it.”

After starting the season 1-3, the Tops have won 13 of their last 15 games and defeated their first ranked opponent under Harper, No. 25 Old Dominion.

“You went from the hunter to the hunted. Now, how are you going to handle the bull’s eye?” Harper said. “Each game you win it gets bigger. If you don’t think this was a huge game for UTSA – it was a huge game for them. They came out and gave us their best shot. As you leave our locker room, my message to our guys is ‘you have to understand that and you have to give them your very best shot.’”

WKU’s thirteenth and fourteenth wins came last week against UTEP and UTSA. WKU overcame a seven point halftime deficit to force overtime and defeat the UTEP 71-66 Thursday in front of the second biggest crowd at Diddle Arena this year. 

Former Hilltopper and current Memphis Grizzly Courtney Lee, WKU’s all-time leading scorer, had his No. 32 jersey retired at halftime of the contest. 

“This is the coolest of the cool right here. It’s a true honor to be able to go up in E.A. Diddle,” Lee said before the game.  “Knowing the tradition here, it speaks volumes, and just to be back here and see all of my old teammates and some of the coaching staff, it’s a special moment for me.”

The Hilltoppers faced UTSA on Saturday and cruised to a 83-74 victory. 

“When you’re picked seventh in the conference going in, we take it to heart,” Senior guard Trency Jackson said. “You want to prove them wrong.”

Senior forward George Fant has led the Tops, especially in conference play, having notched eight-straight double doubles, and averaging13.8 points and 8.7 rebounds this season.

Fellow senior T.J. Price’s scoring average of 17.3 points per game would be the highest by a Hilltopper at the end of the season since Courtney Lee averaged 20.4 as a senior in 2007-08. 

Their next game will be Thursday, Jan. 29 at La. Tech, who currently ranks tied for second in C-USA.