MEN’S BASKETBALL: Final game ends victorious

Jay Lively

In their final regular season game at Diddle Arena, Western’s three seniors left the hardwood as winners Saturday, following a 74-43 thumping of Florida International.

Both teams started off slowly, but an effective trapping defense by the Toppers resulted in 13 steals and 23 Golden Panther turnovers as Western (15-12, 8-6 Sun Belt) used a 14-3 run midway through the second half to pull away.

“We were a little stagnant early on,” coach Darrin Horn said. “But we picked up our defensive effort and offensively we started moving the ball and got some stuff off of our defense.”

The win follows a 73-59 road loss at Middle Tennessee Thursday that pushed the Toppers out of contention for the Sun Belt East regular season title.

But Western bounced back behind senior center Nigel Dixon, who led the team to victory with game highs of 16 points and 11 rebounds, complemented by senior forward Mike Wells, who was the only other Topper in double figures with 12 on the night.

“We didn’t want to come out sloppy for senior night,” Dixon said. “We came out pretty sharp and focused. (We) rotated the ball, played good defense and came away with the win.”

Senior forward Todor Pandov started and played 25 minutes while scoring four points and handing out two assists. He was scoreless until he hit a 3-pointer with 6:30 left in the game.

“He had not scored, so I designed a play to give him a wide open shot and I was just glad it went down,” Horn said. “I knew he wanted to score on senior day.”

Pandov replaced freshman forward Ryan Lambert in the starting line-up. Lambert played just eight minutes in the win. Horn said Pandov was close to 100 percent after an injury-ridden season and believes he will provide a boost going into the tournament.

“It’s always nice to get back in the starting line-up,” Pandov said. “But it doesn’t matter if I come off the bench or if I start. I’m just going to go out there and do what I can do to help my team win.”

Pandov’s 3-pointer sparked a 14-3 run that showcased the three seniors, including a runout Dixon dunk and Wells’ 3-pointer.

As the game got further out of reach for the Golden Panthers (5-21, 1-12), Western’s seniors left the floor to standing ovations with about five minutes left in the game.

“Our seniors provided tremendous leadership,” Horn said. “They came out ready to play and showed good effort.”

After splitting their last two conference games of the regular season, the Toppers will head into the tournament as the No. 4 seed – unfamiliar territory for a program that has been on top of the conference for three consecutive seasons.

Western will face Middle Tennessee in the conference tournament at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday in Diddle Arena. The opening game will tip-off at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday as No. 1 seed Louisiana-Lafayette takes on South Alabama.

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