MEN’S BASKETBALL: Lack of defense loses game for Tops

Jay Lively

In an inexplainable offensive showcase, it appeared Anthony Winchester could shoot his team to victory on Thursday.

The shots kept falling, but the chance for a Western victory fell as well. All chances of a win were lost due to a near absent defensive effort.

Despite a career-high 40 points from Winchester, a sophomore guard, the Hilltoppers lost 110-102 to Louisiana-Lafayette.

It may have been all offense on Thursday, but it was all defense on Saturday, as Western split two games that could not have been more different.

The Toppers followed the Louisiana-Lafayette loss with their first conference road win of the season, beating Florida International 55-42 to improve to .500 in Sun Belt conference play.

While Coach Darrin Horn criticized his team’s defense effort on Thursday, he was quick to praise the Ragin’ Cajuns’ offensive prowess.

“That is by far the best basketball team we have seen in our league,” Horn said. “It is not even close. The athleticism they have combined with their ability to have multiple guys who can make shots makes them extremely difficult to defend.”

Louisiana-Lafayette (10-5, 5-1 Sun Belt) shot a blistering 64.3 percent from the field and an even more impressive 65 percent from behind the arch. Western (9-10, 4-4) wasn’t very far behind shooting 58.5 percent for the game, 42.3 percent on 3-pointers.

All five starters for Western scored double figures with senior guard Mike Wells getting 17 points to compliment Winchester’s career night.

The last Topper to score 40 points was Chris Robinson in 1995 when coach Horn was on the squad.

“Anthony played with a great deal of intensity and emotion (on Thursday) and obviously put up the numbers,” Horn said. “But I was more impressed with the way he played over all-five rebounds, a few assists-he really brought a tremendous amount of effort to the game.”

Despite Winchester’s 19 first-half points, Western trailed 49-45 at the break and narrowed the lead to 56-54 when Winchester nailed a three with 16:14 left in the second half. But Louisiana-Lafayette answered with a 14-2 run during the next four minutes to subdue a raucous Diddle Arena crowd.

The Toppers then closed the gap to four with a 10-0 run of their own highlighted by a pair of 3-pointers, one from junior guard Antonio Haynes and another by Wells.

“It was like an all-star game,” Wells said of the shooting barrage by both teams.

However, Western was unable to get over the hump and make some key defensive stops down the stretch allowing the Ragin’ Cajuns to extend the lead to 105-90 with one minute left in the game.

The Ragin’ Cajuns had six players score double figures led by Antoine Landry who dropped 27 on the night including 5-7 from 3-point range.

It was the first Western game since 1976, that both teams passed the century mark.

It also broke a 31-game home conference winning streak and marked the first time Wells lost a conference home game during his four seasons.

“It hurts a lot,” he said. “It was a big basketball game. They played hard and we played hard. They made big shots and we made big shots. We just came out on the wrong end.”

Western then headed to Florida International on Saturday where they bounced back against the struggling Golden Panthers (3-16, 0-7). The Toppers avenged their poor defensive performance on Thursday by holding their opponent to 16 first-half points and 42 on the night.

Senior center Nigel Dixon and Wells led all scorers with 15 points each and Dixon added a game-high 16 rebounds.

Toppers Busting against Marshall

Western learned Monday it will be playing Marshall University on Feb. 21 as part of the ESPN “Bracket Buster” series.

The series is an attempt to provide exposure for “mid-major” colleges before the NCAA “Selection Sunday.”

The game will be in Huntington, W. Va. and the time hasn’t been announced. As part of the agreement Marshall will play in Diddle in November or December of next season.

Reach Jay Lively at [email protected]