Toppers prep for Sun Belt tour in Texas

WKU’s junior forward George Fant (44) faces Texas State forward Emani Gant (21) during the tipoff of WKU’s game against Texas State on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 at Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Ky.

Tyler Lashbrook

The last time WKU played the Lone Star tandem of Texas State and UT Arlington, it resulted in two home wins. This time, it’ll be on a two-game road trip with stops in San Marcos and Arlington.

On Feb. 1, the Toppers (18-9, 10-4 Sun Belt) beat the Bobcats in a grind-it-out kind of game. Junior forward George Fant led all scorers with 21 points.

“You’re going to get the best out of those guys,” Fant said. “They’re fighting for survival. We just have to be ready to come out there and let them know we got them beat right from the jump, throw the first punch and keep throwing them.”

WKU started off slow in its first outing against Texas State (8-19, 4-10 Sun Belt) and found itself down three, 30-27, at halftime, before grinding out 23 free throw attempts in the second half.

“Last time we played them we didn’t come out our strongest,” Fant said. “We got to come out strong, throw the first punch and keep throwing them.”

The Bobcats are just ninth in the conference, but, for the most part, they’ve stuck with their Sun Belt opponents thanks to the league’s best scoring defense.

“They’re playing very well right now,” WKU coach Ray Harper said. “If you look at their games, they lost on the last possession to Lafayette, pretty much the same thing the other night at Arkansas State, they had the game right there to win it. It’s a desperate basketball team: one that’s fighting for their lives to get in the tournament.”

Harper was asked if Texas State’s desperation will fire a “nothing-to-lose” attitude coming into Thursday’s game against WKU.

“They’ve got a lot to lose,” he said. “If they lose they’re probably going to find themselves out of the tournament.”

But he added that he thinks the Toppers are just as desperate.

“We’re desperate if we have any hope of finishing second and we need to win,” he said. “We need to win out. We control our own destiny.”

WKU is second, behind Georgia State, in the conference but is just one game up on Arkansas State, a team that has won three straight and handled the Toppers on Feb. 10 in Jonesboro.

Like Harper said, the Toppers control their destiny. After a two-game Texas road trip, they come back to Diddle to host a talented Louisiana-Lafayette squad before finishing regular season play in Atlanta against Georgia State, the league’s best team.

Winning out would at least keep WKU in second place and would allow it to challenge for first place, depending how Georgia State finishes up the last part of the season. The incentive for finishing at least second is that it guarantees the Toppers a two-game bye to the Sun Belt semi-finals, per new league tournament rules.

WKU has defied all odds the last two conference tournaments, winning four games in four days en route to two-straight improbable, guaranteed NCAA tournament bids. But winning out the rest of the season finishing second would make that route a whole lot easier.

That starts with Texas State Thursday night. Harper said the Bobcats “present some problems because of how fundamentally sound they are on the defensive end.”

“They’re probably as good as there is in the league and I think the statistics would back that up,” he said.

After that, it’s on to UT Arlington (12-14, 7-7 Sun Belt) Saturday night. The Toppers handled the Mavericks at home, but they have slipped up in conference play, losing three of their four losses in Diddle Arena.

“We put our own selves in this situation with some of the home losses that we’ve had,” Harper said.

“Fortunately we have played well on the road and hopefully we can continue that this weekend.”