Tops head to UAB in the midst of another tough stretch

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The Western Kentucky basketball team is in the midst of one of – if not the – toughest stretches of its 2016-17 season. Four straight games against arguably the league’s four top teams will try WKU’s patience and wherewithal to stay the course.

The second chapter of that stretch comes at 7 p.m. Thursday inside Bartow Arena where Alabama-Birmingham awaits.

“These next three teams that we’re going up against, they’re the best of the best in this conference. That’s for sure,” WKU senior center Ben Lawson said. “These next two games are probably the best games that we’re gonna have. I think we’re in a good position. Looking at the matchups, I think we’ve got a good setup for us, and – yep, we’re gonna have to bring it. We’re gonna have to find some fire and bring it.”

The Hilltoppers (9-8, 3-1 Conference USA) saw a five-game winning streak go by the wayside Saturday in a 79-67 loss at home to Old Dominion. Now they have to avoid their third losing streak of the year by winning at a place they have rarely left victorious.

In 16 trips to UAB, Western has won just thrice – once in 2005, once in 1995 and once in 1986. It should be noted, however, that WKU did knock off the Blazers (9-7, 2-1 CUSA) on March 10 in the Conference USA tournament in Birmingham, Ala.

“Well they’re good. They’re big. Their back line is probably as big as anybody in this league. Those three guys are big and athletic,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said about this year’s UAB team, led by first-year coach Robert Ehsan. “The thing I noticed about ‘em is they got good depth in those perimeter spots. They start three guys, but the two guys they got coming off the bench add a whole lot to ‘em. Those are good players.

“They got two or three guys that can really put that ball on the floor and get to the rim. Good shooting team.”

Led by junior forward Chris Cokley (12.1 points, 5.8 rebounds per game), the Blazers are 5-2 at home this season and 21-2 in their last 23 at Bartow Arena. They’ve played a daunting schedule that has included the likes of Kansas, Saint Mary’s, Memphis, Auburn and Texas.

Junior forward William Lee is chipping in 11.9 points per game to go along with 5.9 rebounds per contest and senior guard Dirk Williams scores 10.5 points per contest. The blazers are the best free throw shooting team in the league (77.4 percent) and have blocked more shots (94) than any CUSA squad.

“It’s always been a great game,” Lawson said of the matchup. “We’ve had some tough wins, some tough losses, and I’m excited to see some of the faces come back. Obviously it’s always a game that we really scout and we really concentrate on.”

After Thursday, WKU will turn its attention to rival Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders (13-3, 3-0 CUSA) are projected to be an at-large selection in the NCAA Tournament and have won 9 of 11 against the Hilltoppers.

“I think the biggest thing for us is just continue to get better as a unit,” WKU senior point guard Junior Lomomba said. “We obviously know UAB’s a great team, Middle Tennessee’s a great team, but once again, I feel like if we get our stuff together, if we keep getting better in the areas that we need to, the sky’s the limit for us.

“I don’t know much about UAB or Middle Tennessee, but I know that we gotta go out there, we gotta follow the gameplan and we just gotta play hard. We gotta be the toughest-playing team.”

After this weekend, Western will have a weekend off before traveling to Marshall (11-6, 4-0 CUSA) on Jan. 21. The high-scoring Thundering Herd have won 3 of 5 against WKU since the two teams became league mates.

The Hilltoppers don’t return home until Jan. 26.

“I think most nights we feel like we have a chance," Stansbury said. "We gotta play well, but I’m not sure there’s anybody on a neutral court somewhere that we don’t have a chance against.

"Now, we gotta keep getting better, and we know who those best teams are, and we got a tough stretch coming up. But we gotta get through this. We gotta find a way.”

NOTES

• Western Kentucky’s RPI going into the weekend is 229.

• The Hilltoppers rank fourth nationally with 15.1 fouls per game, 38th with 256 fouls committed, 73rd with 380 free throw attempts and 80th with 264 free throws made.

• The Hilltoppers rank 289th with 11.9 assists per game, rank 300th with 8.94 offensive rebounds per game, 305th with 11.65 turnovers forced per game and 318th with 4.8 steals per game

• Western Kentucky has made at least one 3 in 923 straight games.

• WKU has made more free throws (264) than its opponents have attempted (249) this season.

• Justin Johnson needs 123 points to reach 1,000 for his career.

• Ben Lawson is fifth in WKU history with 158 career blocks. Elgrace Wilborn is fourth with 161.

• WKU senior Pancake Thomas has 29 assists and eight turnovers in his last seven games.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop