Toppers relying on rebounds

Junior guard Brandon Harris fights for a rebound off a missed free throw against UALR in the second half at E.A. Diddle Arena.

Lucas Aulbach

WKU doesn’t have a lot of threats on offense, is without its starting point guard, and has struggled to find consistency since the start of Sun Belt Conference play.

The Toppers have done one thing right lately, though — crash the boards.

WKU (11-9, 5-5 Sun Belt Conference) leads the Sun Belt in rebounds this season with 768 in 20 games. Its average of 38.4 per game also ranks at the top of the conference and No. 51 in the NCAA.

Opponents are struggling to find rebounds, as WKU currently averages over five more rebounds per game than its opponent.

Thursday’s game, a 72-49 blowout win over Louisiana-Lafayette, was one of the best nights the Toppers have had on the boards this season. WKU won the rebounding battle 49-31, pulling in 18 more rebounds than the Ragin’ Cajuns.

Freshman guard Percy Blade, who had a career-high 10 rebounds Thursday, said rebounding is a point of emphasis when the Toppers prepare for an opponent.

“Before every game, coach puts on the board ‘defense and rebounding,’ and we work on it every day in practice,” Blade said.

Those rebounds are creating extra possessions for an offense that sorely needs them. The Toppers have shot over 33 percent from the field in just one of their last four games and tend to shoot around 20 three-pointers per game — they need every shot attempt they can get.

Rebounds, junior forward O’Karo Akamune said, are a way to stay in the game when the offense is struggling.

“When shots aren’t falling and we’re not getting points near the basket, I just try to crash the boards and help my team out,” he said.

One of the most impressive parts of WKU’s solid season on the glass has been how the rebounds have been spread out. Despite leading the Sun Belt in rebounds per game, the Toppers’ leading rebounder, junior guard Brandon Harris, ranks No. 10 in the conference with 6.6 boards per game.

Harris, whose rebounding abilities surprised Harper this season, may lead the team but he’s hardly the only one making moves in the paint. Sophomore forward George Fant ranks second on the team with 6.3 rebounds per game while sophomore guard T.J. Price and senior center Teeng Akol each average more than four per contest.

Akamune, who usually plays power forward but has seen time at center this year, has also asserted himself as one of WKU’s top rebounders. Though he averages three per game, he had a total of eight in WKU’s 59-54 loss to Arkansas-Little Rock Saturday, including seven on offense.

Coach Ray Harper said the Toppers succeed on the boards when they play with a lot of energy.

“We’re one of those teams where we’re only as good as the energy we put on the floor,” Harper said. “If we’re not just all over the floor and flying to the glass, we’re a below-average basketball team.”