MEN’S BASKETBALL: Sparks ignites Tops’ sharp shooting

Brian Moore

Patrick Sparks emerged from the Hilltopper locker room Saturday night sporting a suit and tie, topping off his ensemble with a blue toboggan.

Though dressed for success, he represented the epitome of relaxation. He and his teammates had just shown themselves that they can shoot the ball, despite woeful shooting in their opening exhibition loss to the Harlem Globetrotters.

But the Toppers did more than string together a few jumpers in their 99-59 win over the Universal All-Stars. Led by Sparks in a furious six-minute run midway through the second half, Western got wicked from behind the three-point arc.

Leading 47-31, Sparks went on a rampage, hitting three trifectas and scoring 13 points in a span of 90 seconds. And if it wasn’t Sparks, it was Mike Wells, David Boyden, Todor Pandov or Filip Videnov.

Western knocked down more threes (11) than twos (9) in the second half. By the time the Toppers were finished, six players had scored in double figures, led by Pandov’s 24 points and Sparks’ 17.

“We had our legs a little better,” Sparks said. “The first game we had jitters, and it was the first game in the renovated arena. We just played solid defense, and that helped our offense.”

And it boosted their confidence heading into Saturday’s showdown at No. 1 Arizona. For Topper fans still trying to figure out just how good this team will be, the game may have offered a few clues.

The Universal All-Stars figured they would match up well with Western. The Milwaukee-based team – comprised mostly of former high school AAU players now in college and recent college graduates – narrowly missed topping Memphis at the Pyramid last week.

Only four points separated them from the Tigers, a perennial contender in Conference USA.

Universal coach Curtis Weathers said Memphis and Western are similar in size. But his team simply couldn’t guard the Toppers, who had four three-point shooters on the floor for most of the second half.

The All-Stars played a zone defense to contain Memphis. When they tried that Saturday, Western shot over them, hitting better than 46 percent from downtown.

“They shot the ball well, and we couldn’t get out on their shooters,” said Weathers, whose team also lost by 10 to George Washington earlier this season. “Out of the three clubs we’ve played, they had more shooters than any of them. But aside from that, I was really impressed with how they passed the ball and the way they found each other.”

Also noting Western’s inside-outside offensive balance, Weathers said it’ll be “scary” when the Toppers throw center Chris Marcus back into the mix.

The first real test for Western is now four days away. The Wildcats’ lineup is loaded with talent, and Western began its preparation with a practice Sunday morning.

“We’re focused on Arizona now,” Western coach Dennis Felton said. “We have a hard caste of priorities in front of us. We’ve got to put everything we can into finding a way to beat them.”

And now that the Toppers have found their shooting game, the stage has been set for opening the season with a top-5 opponent for the second straight year. Western topped No. 4 Kentucky to start the season a year ago.