MEN’S BASKETBALL: Toppers ready for ‘Border War 3’

Jay Lively

By Jay Lively

Herald reporter

For seven of the eight teams playing in this year’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament, post season play will be unforgiving.

One loss and the season’s over.

The only league team in the NCAA Tournament will be the one that wins in Tuesday night’s final at Diddle Arena.

The Toppers have been the top team and league champion for three years but enter this post season as a four seed.

“This year it’s any team’s championship,” senior center Nigel Dixon said. “It’s going to be harder than in previous years. You can’t have any letdowns because if you do you’ll be going home early.”

Hosting the tournament for a second consecutive season, Western will play fifth-seeded Middle Tennessee (16-11, 8-6 Sun Belt) for the third time in a month.

The Toppers beat the Blue Raiders 70-66 at home but were easily defeated 73-59 in Mufreesboro, Tenn.

“We were disappointed with how we played down there,” senior guard Mike Wells said. “We’ve got to come out and be more aggressive and can’t get down early.”

Dubbed as “Border War 3” the game will showcase four of the league’s top six scorers including Middle Tennessee’s Mike Dean (16.2) and Tommy Gunn (16). Western’s Dixon and Wells follow in succession with 16 and 15.7 points respectively.

Western has won seven of the previous nine contests between the two teams since the Blue Raiders joined the Sun Belt in 2000-01 season.

Perhaps the most important of those wins was the championship game of last year’s tournament. Western was behind much of the game before pulling away with a 64-52 win.

Coach Darrin Horn said he expects another battle on Sunday.

“(Dean and Gunn) are two very good players,” he said. “But what we have to be focused on is our game plan agenda. We have to rebound well, play good defense and make free throws if we want to come away with a win.”

But the secret ingredient for the Toppers may have nothing to do with what’s happening on the court but what will be going on around the court.

With only one conference home loss in 33 games, home-court advantage could make up for a mediocre seeding.

“It’s no secret our team likes to play at home,” Dixon said. “We love playing in front of the crowd. That’s going to be a huge advantage for us.”

If the Toppers win on Sunday they will face the winner of top-seeded Louisiana-Lafayette and No. 8 seed North Texas.

On Jan. 29 Lafayette broke Western’s 29-home conference win streak with a 110-102 victory.

With Dixon, Wells and senior forward Todor Pandov playing their last week in Diddle Arena, Horn has challenged them to lead the team a fourth consecutive championship.

“You want to go out a winner,” Horn said. “You want people to remember how you played your last games. When it’s all said and done those are the teams and individuals that stick out in people’s mind.”

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