MEN’S BASKETBALL: With first place on line, Tops face Trojans

Jay Lively

With first place on the line Western goes on the road tonight to face Arkansas-Little Rock, who hopes to knock the Toppers out of their number one slot in the Sun Belt Conference East Division.

The winner will leave with sole possession of the East as both teams head into the final stretch of the regular season.

The Toppers (13-10, 7-4) enter the contest with a five-game winning streak and have won eight of their last 10.

“I think we’re coming together as a team,” said senior center Nigel Dixon, who continues to lead the nation in field goal percentage at 69.9 percent. “We’ve got a little win streak going, and all we can do is take it one game at a time and hopefully keep the streak going.”

History is on their side for a win tonight.

The Toppers boast an 11-game winning streak against the Trojans, including five straight at Alltel Arena. They easily handed Little Rock a 86-71 loss on Jan. 15 at Diddle Arena.

But the Toppers have had their troubles on the road this season going 2-3 in conference play.

“We’ve got to win this one,” senior forward Mike Wells said. “If we don’t then the last one we won means nothing. We got to come out and be prepared and know they’re ready for us.”

The Trojans (13-10, 6-4) look a lot like Western on paper. Their records are almost identical and both teams use a balanced attack – each having four players averaging double figures. Both teams rebound well and are capable of putting up big offensive numbers.

But Little Rock may have the edge in two other categories.

“They’re a good defensive team and very good athletically,” head coach Darrin Horn said.

Defense has been a problem for Western so far.

The Toppers are last in the Sun Belt in scoring defense, allowing an average 72.3 points per game while the Trojans are second giving up just an average 65.1 points per game.

Little Rock is led by junior guard Brandon Freeman, who averages 13.2 points per game and shoots 40.2 percent from behind the arc. Junior point guard Zack Graber is third in the conference with 4.35 assists per game directly behind Western junior point guard Antonio Haynes.

In their final non-conference game of the regular season, Western will turn around and head to Huntington, W. Va, on Saturday to play Marshall (9-12) as part of the ESPN-sponsored “Bracket Buster” series. But the game won’t be showed on ESPN.

“It’s going to give us a good chance to go on the road and play a non-conference team that we haven’t played before this year,” sophomore guard Anthony Winchester said. “And hopefully if we can get the win it will give us more confidence when we play on the road.”

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