Hilltoppers ready for challenge, welcome No. 25 Old Dominion

Senior forward George Fant (44) goes up for a shot against two Bowling Green State defenders during WKU’s game against the Falcons on Dec. 3. Fant led the Hilltoppers in scoring with 14 points and notched four blocks in WKU’s 62-52 victory. Brandon Carter/HERALD

Billy Rutledge

After securing four straight victories and winning 13 of its last 16 games at home, the WKU basketball team (9-5, 2-0) will welcome No. 25 Old Dominion (13-1, 2-0) Saturday in its third Conference game of the season.

The Monarchs come into the matchup on a ten game win streak and are currently enjoying their first  Associated Press Top 25 ranking in school history.

The game will be WKU’s first conference game against a ranked opponent since 1993 and second game against an opponent ranked in the Top 25 this season. The Hilltoppers are 0-6 against ranked opponents under Head Coach Ray Harper—most recently losing to No. 4 Louisville at Diddle Arena on Dec. 20.

“First, if you’re going to compete and have a chance to be there in the end and win a championship, you need to win all of your home games. We have a home game Saturday,” Head Coach Ray Harper said.

“The fans need to be here for these kids. They play the game the right way, they play extremely hard. You’re going to see a very good basketball team on Saturday. We look at it no different than we did tonight or our opening game. It’s just another opportunity. We’re going to approach it the same way we do every game. I’m sure our kids will be excited, but at the same time we have to stay within ourselves and be ourselves. That’s a basketball team that plays hard and plays together. If we do that, we’ll see what happens.”

WKU comes into Saturday’s matchup after back-to-back home conference wins against Marshall and Charlotte. Most recently, the Hilltoppers overcame a dominating rebounding effort by the 49ers, out-rebounding WKU 49-29, to hold onto a slim 74-66 victory.

Thursday’s win against Charlotte featured 71 combined points by the WKU starters and a season low four turnovers—the lowest turnover mark in a game since they had four turnovers in 1983 against Nebraska. The effort included senior guard T.J. Price who scored a team high 21 points and has continued to find success this season.

Price, who passed WKU’s all-time scorer Courtney Lee for second most three pointers made in program history has now scored 20+ points in six-straight games against Division I opponents.  He is just two shy of breaking the all-time mark of 247 made by Anthony Winchester. Price scored ten of WKU’s last 12 points in their win Thursday and has established himself as the star of WKU’s “three happy” attack.

Price averages 21.3 points per game this season, and is ranked 13 in the nation in three-point field goal percentage (.477).  Senior forward George Fant, has posted three-straight double double performances, which is the longest streak in the WKU standout’s career. Fant has scored 32 points and 23 rebounds in two Conference USA games this season.

To round out the senior class, guard Trency Jackson has set the tone on the defensive end this season. Jackson is averaging 10.2 points per game and has a team high 14 steals on the year. Jackson, who is also one of the emotional leaders on the team, knows just how crucial conference games are to the team.

“It’s very important,” Jackson said. “We are taking it game by game, and we are trying to keep it rolling. We are coming to this conference with a chip on our shoulder, and that’s how were going to play.”

Old Dominion’s strength in numbers is just one of the advantages they possess when they come into E.A. Diddle Arena Saturday for the first time since 1991. The Monarchs have nine players that have played in at least 13 of their 14 games including junior guard Aaron Bacote who is averaging 9.1 points per game and was selected to the Preseason All-Conference USA team.

Along with Bacote, fellow junior guard Trey Freeman has posted team leading numbers as he leads the Monarchs with 16 points per game. The guard play of the two juniors is complemented by Old Dominions depth and their exceptional rebounding efforts. The Monarchs ranks eighth in the nation in scoring defense and 21 in rebounding margin. Old Dominion has out-rebounded their opponents 538-424 this season, a trait the Hilltoppers have to struggled with.

WKU faces Old Dominion Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at Diddle Arena. It will be the last of a seven game homestead for the Hilltoppers, they have gone 5-1 in that span. With the second ranked opponent coming into Diddle Arena on the season, WKU knows they will need the support of their fans to get their first ranked victory since 2009.

“I know they (fans) already come out in big numbers for us.” Fant said. “They are definitely going to do that…I know they know the significance of this game and of this team. So I think they will come out for us.”