FRISCO, Texas — Both Western Kentucky basketball teams don’t have a whole lot of momentum heading into their postseason debuts Thursday.
Rick Stansbury’s men and Michelle Clark-Heard’s women are each on two-game losing streaks and both have to wait a day in Frisco, Texas, before washing away the memory of a dreadful end to the regular season. The mantra of a new season has rang true for each program in the chase for a league title and for a berth into the NCAA Tournament.
“I’ve been really proud of them. We came back (Monday) at home and had a great practice. And the same thing (Tuesday),” Heard said Tuesday after her team’s practice at The Star. “I just think kinda feeling light and just wanting to play and get back out and kinda redeem ourselves. Didn’t play as well as we could have and didn't play Lady Topper basketball (last week).
“It has a lot to do with our two seniors. They stepped up and kept the group together and talked about who we are as a program and how we wanna represent our program and how we wanna play hard and do the things that we always do."
The Lady Toppers (21-8) finished as the league’s No. 2 seed, but only after dropping their last two games of the year at Southern Mississippi and Texas El Paso, respectively. Those defeats cost them a chance at the top spot in Conference USA and evoked a player’s-only team meeting led by seniors Tashia Brown and Ivy Brown.
Western, by no means, is in panic mode. In fact the Lady Toppers said Tuesday they feel more confident they can re-find the type of basketball they had been playing to put themselves in position for a trophy going into March.
“We really worked on some stuff the past few days in practice and we just regained our focus and locking in on defense and looking at film and focusing on things that we didn’t do the past few games and trying to carry that over to these next few games,” Ivy Brown said. “We just use it as a learning lesson, try to go back and look at what we did wrong and try to improve on that for these upcoming games. But you can always see the positive side of things, too.”
The Lady Toppers will face Texas San Antonio (9-20) at 1:30 p.m. Thursday. Their mission is to win a second straight CUSA tourney championship and third in the past four tries.
Led by the league’s player of the year in Tashia Brown, WKU also needs better production from freshman of the year Raneem Elgedawy, sixth player of the year Dee Givens, shooter Sidnee Bopp and point guard Whitney Creech.
“Everyone knows Tashia and Ivy and what they bring to the table,” Heard said. “Everyone thinks you stop those two and then you have a chance to win. We have to have other people step up. That’s what we’ve been doing all year.
“What we’ve talked about is going back to the things that we’ve been doing and that’s the way it was. It wasn’t any pressure, it wasn’t anything, it was just going out and playing.”
Stansbury’s unit spent Tuesday night at an arcade and will use its Wednesday with an off-site practice, scouting meeting and viewing of the FAU-Alabama Birmingham game at 9 p.m. – the Blazers won 83-72 to set up a quarterfinals matchup with the Hilltoppers (22-9) at 9 p.m. Thursday.
The Western men also ended the season with a thud by losing by 18 at Middle Tennessee and by 28 at UAB (20-12). They had a chance of winning a regular-season title of their own, but those two defeats made them the No. 3 seed going into play this week.
“We’re ready. We know what’s at stake, for sure,” said WKU freshman Marek Nelson, a nearby Plano, Texas product. “We know we’ve given up a couple games recently that we know we shouldn’t have and we didn’t play as best as we could. But we gotta bounce back and we know what’s at stake and we’ll be ready for sure.”
Stansbury said WKU would plan t0 prepare to face UAB even before the Blazers beat FAU. If the Owls had pulled off the upset, Western’s second-year coach said he and his staff will then adjust accordingly.
But as has been the case all year, the Tops are more concerned with themselves and rising to the level of play they demonstrated often through the course of 31 games before this week.
“For the most part we’ve been locked-in. We’ve been focused. I haven’t had much issues with that (this season),” Stansbury said. “That doesn’t mean we have always played great. If you can’t get locked-in and focused this time of year, the year’s not gonna last much longer. Every game you play now it’s your last one. We’ve had two good days, (Monday), traveled today, had a good walk-through. I like where the kids are at mentally.”
Said UAB coach Robert Ehsan: "I think offensively we're playing as good as we've played all year. It's a great time, it's a good feeling to be playing this way coming off where we really struggled offensively in February. But, March Madness, we've been playing good, we've been playing really well offensively in March and hopefully it'll continue (Thursday)."
Should the men advance to Friday they’ll face Old Dominion or Louisiana Tech at 3 p.m. that day. Should the women move on they’d go up against Louisiana Tech or North Texas at 8 p.m. Friday.
The league title games are scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Saturday for the women and 7:30 p.m. Saturday for the men.
“We’re just locked-in and focused and have just played hard the whole time,” WKU senior Dwight Coleby said. “I think we had a lot of energy in practice just now (Tuesday). It was great. It don’t really matter (who we play). I think if we prepare for anybody we could beat anyone who we play, so it doesn’t matter.”
OHMER MAY WEAR PROTECTIVE MASK
Western Kentucky freshman Jake Ohmer took a hit to the nose during Monday’s team practice in Bowling Green. On Tuesday he wore a protective face mask during WKU’s workout just in case that nose had been broken.
“No time to get X-Rays (Tuesday) morning before we left,” Stansbury said. “Fortunate enough that his roommate Taveion (Hollingsworth’s) mask fits pretty good. I think it fits him better than it did (Hollingsworth). If we can get him to play as well as (Hollingsworth) did with that mask we’ll be in good shape.”
Ohmer has averaged 5.8 points over the past six games and hasn’t finished in double figures since scoring 12 against Marshall on Jan. 27. The Scott High School product is shooting 32.4 percent from 3.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop