Testing the defense: UT-Arlington will challenge WKU’s dominating defense

Ole Miss point guard Derrick Millinghaus attempts to push past Topper freshman point guard Brandon Harris during their match at Diddle Arena on Dec. 30, 2013. The Ole Miss Rebel Black Bears defeated the Toppers 79-74. (Rae Emary/HERALD)

Tyler Lashbrook

After a successful two-game road swing in Louisiana, WKU (13-7, 5-2 Sun Belt Conference) returns to the warm confines of Diddle Arena Thursday for a game against Texas-Arlington.

“They’re very, very talented,” coach Ray Harper said of the Mavericks. “They’re playing very well right now and it’ll be a huge test for us.”

UT-Arlington (9-10, 4-3 Sun Belt) has won its last three games in a row, improving to 4-3 and ranking fourth in the Sun Belt.

Senior guard Reger Dowell leads the Mavericks at 21.6 points per game.

He’s a versatile scoring guard who is shooting better than 40 percent from long range in conference play and, according to Harper, he has the “green light” from UT Arlington coach Scott Cross.

“It’s much easier to play when you have the green light at all times and he does,” Harper said. “He’s going to rip; he’s going to drive; he’s going to get us into a lot of ball screens; he’s got unlimited range. He’s just a good player.”

The Mavericks also have senior forward Brandon Edwards, a powerful low post guy who is averaging 16 points and 9.6 rebounds on 50 percent shooting. His numbers have dipped a little in conference play, but he’s still a versatile threat on the block and Harper called him a “monster on the inside.”

Junior guard Lonnie McClanahan, an attacking point guard and UT Arlington’s third leading scorer, is averaging a hair over 17 points a contest in Sun Belt play and junior guard Jamel Outler, a Texas Tech transfer, is adding 10 points per game of his own.

Harper said McClanahan is “as fast with the basketball in his hands as anyone (the Toppers have) seen all season.”

Needless-to-say, this is a Texas-Arlington team with options on the offensive end.

But this is a WKU team with pesky defensive depth; the Toppers are first in the Sun Belt in scoring defense, giving up just 66 points per game.

The defense did, however, struggle in WKU’s two losses in its last home stand: Georgia State ran away from the Toppers on Jan. 9, scoring 77 points in a 23-point blowout, and Arkansas State compiled 82 points against the Toppers in the next game.

WKU has overcome that adversity, winning its last three contests – the first in a gritty, double-overtime game against Arkansas Sate, and the next two on the road in Louisiana against UL-Monroe and UL-Lafayette respectively.

“I thought the most important thing was we really competed,” Harper said. “I thought we’re starting to figure some things out. The great thing, if you look at the trip, we had a lot of different guys step up and play well.”

Senior guard Brandon Harris stepped up against ULL.

He came in late in the game and controlled the Toppers through ULL’s full court press and finished a big scoop shot with minutes remaining to help seal the win.

That performance came two days after he logged just three minutes and zero points off the bench against ULM.

“My role is whatever coach says it is and I’m going to be the best I can to get the job done,” Harris said. “If that’s sitting on the bench waiving the towel, ringing the bell, I’m going to be the best I can at doing that.”

“Of course I love being on the court, but if that means I’m sitting down just cheering for my teammates, I’ll be the best I can at doing that.”

He said that WKU plays hard and “play(s) together as a team.”

“They always say when you continue to do the right things, good things happens,” he said, “so I think we’re still doing the right things, (we) still need to get better in a few areas but I think we’re getting there.”

The Toppers look like they are getting there; right now, they sit alone at second plance in the Sun Belt, trailing only Georgia State.

“This is a huge home stand,” Harper said. “If we have any ideas or thoughts of catching Georgia State, we better continue to win because no one has found a way to beat them up to this point.”