MEN’S BASKETBALL: Toppers shatter, stumble into SBC

Jay Lively

Big Jelly’s shattered backboard may have made the biggest headline during the holiday break for Western’s men’s basketball team – even overshadowing some important wins and tight losses.

In Wednesday’s loss to Arkansas State, Nigel “Big Jelly” Dixon brought down the rim and glass after a monstrous dunk in the first half, forcing a 35-minute delay.

Despite getting a career-high 26 points from senior Mike Wells, who passed the 1,000 point mark for his career, Western lost its Sun Belt Conference opener on the road after the Indians squeeked out a 79-76 win, snapping a seven game losing skid against the Hilltoppers, who fell to 5-7.

After losing 72-66 to South Alabama on Saturday, the Toppers are 5-8 and 0-2 in the conference.

The Toppers snapped a streak of their own, having won their previous four contests before heading into conference play. Following an 0-5 start, Western went 5-1 during a six game non-conference stretch, including wins against Austin Peay, Evansville and Ball State.

Wells said the team put their collective “foot down” following their poor start and decided to step it up on defense.

“We’ve been focusing a lot on getting the big stops,” Wells said. “If we can play defense like we did during that (stretch), we can have success the rest of the way. Defense wins games.”

After early December losses to in-state rival Louisville, 93-63, and a 100-95 double-overtime loss to Murray State, the Hilltoppers snapped their five-game losing streak with tough defense by easily winning at home against Austin Peay 75-59.

Two newcomers, freshman center Josh Higgins and junior-college transfer Antonio Haynes, led the way with Higgins posting career highs of 15 points and 11 rebounds, helping Western to their first win of the season.

Following a 66-65 overtime loss at Illinois State, Western began their four game winning streak edging out the University of Evansville 92-82.

The Hilltoppers then hammered out a 78-69 win at Ball State before visiting the Big Apple to play Fordham, where sophomore guard Anthony Winchester made four three-pointers in the first four minutes of play on his way to a career-best 27 points and a 94-70 win.

“We just came together as a team,” Winchester said. “We’ve been practicing hard every day in practice.”

The Toppers then returned home to pummel Division II Kentucky State, 107-52.

With a balanced scoring attack, coach Darrin Horn said he has confidence in his team’s ability to put up points but continues to preach the importance of improving the defense.

“We’re the highest scoring team in the Sun Belt,” Horn said. “But that’s not going to help if the other team scores more points than we do.

“We really need to improve defensively. We’ve shown progress in spots but we need to do that for 40 minutes.”

Western has four players averaging more than 11 points a contest as well as four players averaging more than five rebounds.

Dixon is just short of averaging a double-double with 9.8 boards and 15.2 points. Dixon made Chris Berman of ESPN’s “Top 10” plays list Sunday as well as his “highlight of the week” when he shattered the backboard against Arkansas State.

Wells and Winchester are averaging 16.7 and 15.0 points a contest respectively, while Haynes is averaging 4.6 assists to complement his 11.6 points.

Overall, Western went 5-5 over Christmas beak, but opened conference play 0-2.

The Toppers will now have to play catch-up in their attempt to win a fourth consecutive Sun Belt regular season championship.

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