Aulbach: Toppers stay hot in close win

WKU’s head coach Ray Harper (center) leads the Toppers in a cheer during a timeout in the second half of WKU’s 68-64 victory over Texas State on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 at Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Ky.

Lucas Aulbach

The Toppers are winning games consistently at this point in the season — they’ve come out on top in their last five contests, including a 68-64 home victory Saturday night over Texas State, and haven’t lost since Jan. 16.

After the game Saturday, though, most of the talk was on how this team could improve, and for good reason — the Toppers might know how to win, but they sure don’t make it look pretty.

Saturday night was a good example of the formula the Toppers have been winning with lately — strong play from their top offensive threats, good defense, and a few hustle plays to seal the deal. WKU (15-7, 7-2 Sun Belt Conference) rode a 21-point performance from junior forward George Fant and some scorching shooting from senior guard Caden Dickerson on its way to a 68-64 win over Texas State (6-15, 2-6 SBC).

The game featured the two top defenses in the Sun Belt, and they played like it. Both squads recorded double-digit turnovers and neither team could extend the lead past seven.

A lot of numbers stick out on the stat sheet — Fant dropped 21, Dickerson hit four 3-point shots for 12 points, and despite a less-than-average night from the field, junior guard T.J. Price finished with 13 points.

The difference, though, might have been O’Karo Akamune. The senior forward has only played in eight games this year after recovering from a broken foot and while he doesn’t put up eye-popping numbers, his play recently is a big reason why WKU has had so much success, according to coach Ray Harper. Akamune finished Saturday night with eight points and a game-high nine rebounds.

“He’s just a step quicker than guys right now,” Harper said about the forward after the game. “If we can get some more guys playing the way he’s playing, we’ll be OK.”

Akamune, Dickerson, and the others might have to keep up this pace considering some of the recent hits the Toppers have taken. Junior guard Kevin Kaspar, who recently had surgery on his knee, and sophomore center Aleksej Rostov, who was diagnosed this week with a blood clot in his upper extremity, are both out indefinitely. Those are two serious blows, and other guys will need to step up while Kaspar and Rostov recover.

With nine games to go in the season, the Toppers are starting to create an identity based around defense and winning close games. Those are two ideal skills to have, and they should serve WKU well as March approaches.