Toppers take step back at home

Lucas Aulbach

WKU just can’t master a formula for winning.

Thursday’s road win at North Texas set the stage for the team to rip off its first three-game winning streak since the Toppers won six in a row during a stretch in November and December.

On Saturday, the Toppers looked more like the team that recently lost six of seven. WKU (13-12, 7-7 Sun Belt Conference) never led in a 67-49 loss to Arkansas State in front of a season-high 5,862 fans at Diddle Arena.

Coach Ray Harper didn’t mince words when he talked about the game.

“I told the kids, ‘we took a step back tonight,’” he said after the game. “No question.”

It wasn’t the fact WKU lost the game that is most troubling — while it hurts their attempt to secure a first-round bye in the upcoming Sun Belt Conference Tournament, the Toppers, with the sixth-best record in the conference, can still compete for one of the five byes.

It was the way they lost that speaks about the state of the team.

The Red Wolves had WKU beat in nearly every statistical category — they fouled less, turned the ball over less, had four more assists and pulled in 10 more rebounds than the Toppers.

Harper said they even dominated in areas that don’t show up in the statistics.

“I just thought they whipped us in every facet of the game,” he said. “They were tougher than us, we couldn’t get any second or third opportunities, and we did not get a lot of good looks on the first opportunity.”

Sophomore guard T.J. Price was about the only offensive piece WKU had working Saturday. He finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists — all team-highs for the game.

He said with the Toppers finally getting healthier — the lineup has been overhauled several times this year due to injuries — their experience should help the team get it together soon.

“It’s a big loss, but at the same time it’s not going to hurt us as bad team-wise and experience-wise because we know we’re not at our best,” Price said. “We know we have much more of a way to go, and we’ve got to get it together for these last games and when it comes to tournament time.”

On seven-of-16 shooting, Price was the only player on the court for WKU to hit more than three shots, and his 43.7 shooting percentage was the highest on the team.

Shot selection, Harper said, was a big reason why the Toppers fell.

“I thought we settled — we were back to not making the next play,” he said. “We settled for an OK shot rather than making that next play and getting a great shot.”

The Red Wolves have played WKU tough in both meetings this season, winning the two games by a combined total of 32 points.

Harper said the Toppers will try to make up for the loss on the practice floor before their next game, Thursday at Florida Atlantic.

“Can’t get it back, so we’ll go back to work Monday and hopefully try to get better,” he said.