MEN’S BASKETBALL: Tops jump to first place in East Division

Jay Lively

Western was able to slide by North Texas 70-68 Saturday after a see-saw affair in Diddle Arena that saw 16 lead changes and 16 ties.

Junior point guard Antonio Haynes scored 15 of his 23 points in the final six minutes to lead the Toppers to their fifth consecutive victory.

By following up Thursday’s win at Denver, the Toppers (13-10, 7-4 Sun Belt) now own first place outright in the East Division.

Head coach Darrin Horn isn’t ready to pat his team on the proverbial back for what appears to be a season on the rebound.

“What we do tonight can be negated by what we do the next night,” Horn said. “We still have four games left. What’s important is not if we’re at a turning point but are we ready to play the next game.

“I don’t think we played particularly well tonight to be honest with you. I do feel like our guys stepped up in the end and made some key plays and the kind of plays you have to make down the stretch to win a close game like that.”

Senior center Nigel Dixon scored 24 points and grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds on the night as he dominated North Texas underneath.

With the game on the line, he capped off the night by uncharacteristically sinking two free throws to put the Toppers on top 74-71 with 2:21 left in the game.

North Texas (11-12, 6-5) then turned the ball over on the ensuing possession and Haynes made them pay with his fourth 3-pointer to extend Western’s lead to six.

“I was just waiting and trying to let the game come to me,” Haynes said. “When my turn came and opportunity presented itself, I took advantage and just tried to make some big shots.”

But with 10 seconds left, the Mean Green pulled within one when Jerome Rogers made three free-throws after sophomore guard Anthony Winchester fouled the senior guard on a 3-point shot.

Down by one, the Mean Green quickly fouled Haynes and he knocked down one of two for the final score.

North Texas had a chance to win or tie on the last possession, but a baseline jumper went in and out as time expired.

“They are a good team,” Dixon said. “We knew they’d give us a good run for our money. We just took care of business and got a win against a real good team.”

The altitude didn’t slow the Toppers down Thursday as they turned it on late to come from behind in a 78-65 victory at mile-high Denver (13-10, 5-6).

Down 36-32 at the half, it became a game of offensive spurts for Western who had four players score at least six consecutive points in the second period.

Dixon, who finished with 16 points and eight rebounds, scored the first seven points after the break, setting the tone for the rest of the contest.

After averaging 18.5 points and 6.5 assists in Western’s two conference victories last week, Haynes was named Sun Belt Player of the Week.

“Tone is a guy that likes to make plays down the stretch,” Horn said. “He isn’t afraid to take big shots and Saturday he made them and really stepped up.”

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