Defense key for Toppers in two Florida losses

Lucas Aulbach

On Feb. 7, Arkansas State toppled WKU 67-49 in Diddle Arena. The Toppers shot 16-of-50 from the field, 23 percent from beyond the arc and had six assists to 11 turnovers.

A week and a half later, it looks like the Toppers have bigger problems on defense.

WKU took a week off after the ASU loss before taking on Florida Atlantic Thursday in an 84-78 loss. The Toppers followed that up with an 87-82 road loss to Florida International Saturday.

At times in the two games, the Topper offense looked clean and efficient. Point totals of 82 and 78 are the second and third-most scored in a game this year by WKU, trailing a 92-81 win over Western Carolina in November.

Still, WKU (13-14, 7-9 Sun Belt Conference) comes home with two losses thanks to defensive struggles. That game against Western Carolina was the first this season that the Toppers had given up more than 80 points – the games against FAU and FIU became the second and third over the weekend.

“This is the third time I believe we’ve given up 80-plus points, and (coach Ray Harper) said that’s not going to win games,” sophomore guard Kevin Kaspar said after the loss at FIU Saturday. “We’ve got to guard them and keep them in the 60s.”

The combination of 166 points through the two games ifs far and away the most that have been scored on WKU in consecutive games this season.

There is an easy answer to the question of what killed the Toppers in Thursday’s close game against the Owls – FAU guards Greg Gantt and Stefon Moody.

Gantt netted 31 points for the Owls while Moody dropped 26 on the Toppers. The two guards each hit nine shots and combined to shoot 64 percent on 18-of-28 shooting from the field.

Those two big games were enough o top a career day from sophomore forward George Fant, who had a career-high 35 points and 11 rebounds.

“They’re really special players,” Fant said of Moody and Gantt. “They hit a couple of crazy shots. I guess that’s who their team relies on to score, and they produce.”

FAU finished the game shooting 58 percent.

Harper said that said more about why WKU lost than the performances of the Owl guards.

“Bottom line is it’s going to be difficult to beat teams if you allow them to shoot 58 percent,” Harper said. “I know Gantt made some extremely tough shots, but at the same time, he got separation from us too many times on some of those baseline cuts.”

The Toppers gave up more points to a wider distribution of players Saturday. FIU had four players score in double figures, including a pair of 20-point performances from forwards Tymell Murphy and Jerome Frink.

Harper said missed assignments and late switches on defense pulled the Toppers down against the Panthers.

“We’re not switching, we switched and left a guy open – just little things that, this time of year, should not be happening,” he said.

The Toppers will be back on the court Thursday at home against Louisiana-Monroe, a team they beat handily in November.

While the Toppers focused on improving on offense in practice all last week, Harper said that with how his team performed in the last two games, he may have them work a more on defense this week.

“We got one fixed and one broke,” he said. “Let’s see if we can get them both fixed this week.”