MEN’S BASKETBALL: Sparks ignites Hilltoppers

Danny Schoenbaechler

John Pelphrey’s South Alabama squad had no answer for Patrick Sparks on Saturday night. Neither did New Orleans two nights earlier.

“That young man can play anywhere in the country,” Pelphrey said. “He’s a special basketball player.”

Sparks racked up 38 points and 19 assists in the two games, en route to being named the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Week.

“I think I played under control and it’s really helped my team,” Sparks said.

Western Coach Dennis Felton said that Sparks was very influential in the Hilltoppers’ two wins.

“He’s starting to grasp this idea of making simple plays,” Felton said. “He was outstanding.”

Western (11-6, 4-1 SBC) beat South Alabama 85-69, but the game was decided before halftime. The Toppers led 27-19 before going on a 20-6 run over the final 7:07 of the first half.

And the aptly named sophomore guard gave his team the first-half spark they needed to put the game away. Sparks had 13 points, eight assists and three steals by intermission.

“As far as I’m concerned, they’re the best team in the conference,” Pelphrey said.

It also helped that the Toppers shot 20 of 32 from the field, including 7 of 13 from behind the arc. They didn’t let up and made 15 of their 24 second-half attempts.

“We played great tonight,” senior guard Mike Wells said. “We played well defensively and we shot well.”

Wells has 15 points and three assists in the contest.

Felton has been pleased with how the team’s freshmen have been coming along.

“Jamal (Brown) was very good tonight,” Felton said. “And Anthony (Winchester) has been very strong for a freshman since right at the beginning of the season, but I do think he played a little better tonight than he has recently. Ultimately, Kevin (Messiah) should be teams’ worst nightmare defensively.”

The trio combined for 14 points in the blowout.

Thursday night’s game against New Orleans was similar with Western holding a 21 point halftime advantage, on their way to a 78-59 win.

Western will travel to Las Cruces, N.M. this weekend and take on New Mexico State.

Western has never lost to the Aggies in six previous meetings. However, this will be the first time the two clubs have faced off in Las Cruces.

New Mexico State is 11-4 but only 2-2 in the Sun Belt. They won the West Division last season, going 20-12 and 11-4 in the SBC.

The Toppers, however, are finally hitting their stride after some early season struggles.

“We’re right on track,” Sparks said. “We knew that these wins would give us confidence.”

Wells agreed that the Toppers are playing better, that things seem to be looking up.

“I just think we’re outplaying teams,” he said. “And we’re holding down their best players from what they usually do.”

Reach Danny Schoenbaechler at [email protected]