MEN’S BASKETBALL: Western rips Auburn, trips at Evansville

Kyle Hightower

It’s amazing how far a team can travel in just four games.

And we’re not just talking about miles here.

It was just about this time a month ago that Dennis Felton and his Hilltoppers were preparing to skip down their own yellow brick road.

They were getting ready to travel the path that was going to lead them to the “Wizard of the later rounds of the NCAA Tournament” by the end of the 2002-03 season.

And while it still might, at 2-2 following an 81-76 overtime loss at wayward Evansville in overtime, the snow that blanketed Western yesterday is falling in more ways than one in Hilltopper country.

Western survived poor rebounding and a sluggish start, but in the end succumbed to a gritty Aces’ club that was keyed by a 3-pointer with less than a second remaining in regulation and a frontcourt that notched 64 points.

Evansville forward Ian Hanavan scored a game-high 25 points, center Dan Lytle added 20 and forward Clint Cuffle dropped 19 points for the Aces, who ended a two-game losing streak to Western.

Mike Wells led the Hilltoppers with 19 of his own (all in the final 20 minutes) and Patrick Sparks put up 18 (all in the first half).

Just two days earlier, the story was different. The Toppers drilled Auburn of the Southeastern Conference, 89-70.

After being whipped by Western in almost every way possible during the second half Sunday, Auburn coach Cliff Ellis was completely humble in his assessment of the Hilltoppers.

“Overall, we just got whipped on the boards, and I commend Western on the way they competed and fought in the second half to get back in the game and take control of the ballgame,” Ellis said.

Tuesday night, it was Felton who was eating humble pie after his Toppers came out lethargic and played poorly against the Aces — mostly on the boards.

“They outworked us,” Felton said.?”Rebounding is about effort. They’re a lot bigger than us, but we have never relied on that excuse when it comes to rebounding.”

For a reference, Felton could have pointed to the victory over the Tigers when Western out-rebounded a much bigger club rather handily, 28-21.

“We were just inconsistent,” forward David Boyden said. “We didn’t come out and defend like we did in the Auburn game, and we didn’t pass the ball like we did in the Auburn game.

“We just weren’t consistent at all.”

This infant season, Western has already been asked to prosper without the services of several key companions. And people are already starting to wonder if Dorothy Dennis is looking for his ruby red sneakers when he takes his team on the road.

After starting the season with Halley’s Comet high hopes, Western was brought back down to the hardwood with a resounding thud by virtue of a beating at No. 1 Arizona and the loss of forward Todor Pandov.?The Pandov injury was a major one, considering Western started the season and remains without the services of 7-foot-1 center Chris Marcus.

The Toppers bounced back in their home opener with Virginia Commonwealth, winning in overtime. They went into the semi-neutral, but heavily red Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville Sunday to hammer Auburn in an impressive outing for the veterans and freshmen.

It was even more impressive considering that many of the rookies were playing under battlefield commissions of sorts, thanks to all Western’s ailments.

“We’re really pleased with the result of the game, and to see we improved a little bit from the way we’ve been playing so far,” Felton said after the Auburn win.?”It’s fortunate because we’ve been a vulnerable team while we’ve been struggling with our confidence and carrying the heavy burden of expectations.”

But the loss of projected key contributors has also given players like senior forward Nate Williams the opportunity to showcase his talents — when they decide to show them.?Williams didn’t have a great game against Evansville, with just six points, but was one of six Western players in double figures against Auburn. But he didn’t grab a single rebound.

“I pointed out the fact that he played 17 minutes (versus Auburn) and played 13 minutes tonight (against Evansville) with none, and I told him I was disappointed,” Felton said of Williams. “That’s 30 straight minutes without a rebound. We’ve got to be better than that.”

Williams snagged seven boards in the second half Tuesday.

Aside from better play of reserves turned starters, another part of getting better may be not relying so much on the outside shot. Western shot a monumental 39 3-pointers and connected on just 12 against Evansville.

“We’ve got to learn to play team offense and not just settle for early perimeter shots like we did tonight,” Felton said.

Western will stay on the road and try to steady its path as it travels to Murray State Saturday for a 7 p.m. tip-off.

Wells honored, Massiah hurting, Marcus absent

Wells was named Sun Belt Conference Player of the Week Tuesday after averaging 19.5 points and five rebounds in Western’s two victories. This is the second Player of the Week honor for Wells in his career.?

Having sported a suit on the sideline in Western’s win over Auburn, freshman guard Kevin Massiah didn’t travel with the Hilltoppers to Evansville. He didn’t practice or play in a week to allow a high ankle sprain to heal. Massiah is expected to get back on the court today.

Also, Marcus didn’t travel with the team to the Auburn or Evansville games. Felton said Marcus was home studying after his absence in Nashville. Monday after practice, where Marcus was again a no-show, Felton denied rumors that the big man was no longer on the team.

Reach Kyle Hightower at [email protected]