At 5 p.m. Saturday, Western Kentucky will face its toughest conference challenge to date. The good news for the Hilltoppers, however, it’s that they could be facing their recent nemesis at just the right time.
The Monarchs (9-6, 2-1 Conference USA) come to Bowling Green fresh off a 90-86 overtime loss at Marshall on Thursday while WKU (9-7, 3-0 CUSA) has won five in a row and is gaining steam early in the league season. The Tops have also won nine straight in E.A. Diddle dating back to last year.
“We're all just starting to play better together, kind of holding each other accountable for stuff and it’s helping us,” WKU redshirt-sophomore Jabari McGhee said. “(The winning streak has been great), especially for somebody like me. I like to smile, I like to jump around, I like to do too much stuff to be losing. It’s good energy throughout the whole team.”
Old Dominion has won four straight against Western, including an 89-77 win March 11 in Birmingham, Ala., in the Conference USA tournament. But ODU has won just four times in 18 trips to Diddle Arena.
First-year WKU coach Rick Stansbury made a plea Thursday for the fans to show up in droves so as to make it that much tougher for the Monarchs to steal one on the road.
“We need all those people who stayed home (Thursday), that didn’t come out and fight through that snow, who listened to it on the radio and watched it on TV, we need you in here Saturday afternoon now,” he said. “Everybody outta be fueled-up and gassed-up and ready to come. Don’t ever underestimate how valuable y’all being in those seats, what it means to our team getting us energy.”
Western has reeled off five straight wins by an average margin of 5.2 points. One of those victories included an 82-80 triumph Thursday over visiting Charlotte.
The Tops have gotten improved play from their bench and have learned how to win close games along the way. The 15-point win at Florida Atlantic on Saturday was the only contest decided by more than five points during the current winning streak.
“There’s nothing easy for us,” Stansbury said. “But I think you’ve seen a change in our team a little bit. We’ve been down, we’ve been out – I’d say four weeks ago when we’d been down in the water we’d been beaten.
“But our guys are finding ways. We’re staying together. We got different guys making plays. We’re not really a smooth-operating team offensively.”
Old Dominion has losses to Louisville, Louisiana State, Rhode Island, Virginia Commonwealth and William and Mary. Adjusting to the graduation of star Trey Freeman, ODU is getting 12.3 points per game from redshirt-freshman guard Ahmad Carver, 10.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game from redshirt-junior forward Brandan Stith and 10.1 per game from redshirt-sophomore forward Zoran Talley.
Stith, however, has been ruled out of Saturday's contest with an injury.
Traditionally stout on the defensive end under coach Jeff Jones, the Monarchs led CUSA in points per game allowed at 58.6 and second in field goal percentage defense (39.7 percent).
The Hilltoppers are expecting another tough game – but that’s become standard.
“FIU was a tough game, this game was tough, we’re definitely used to it – especially being on the road in the preseason,” WKU senior guard Que Johnson said. “That has us prepared for times like this. Games on the road is tough – and this game (Thursday) was tough, too. And we’re developing that mentality to get stops on defense.”
The Hilltoppers will be going for a 10th straight win at home – something they haven’t done since reeling off 12 in a row from Jan. 21, 2012 to Dec. 29, 2013.
“We just gotta continue to get better at everything we’re doing. It’s not easy for us,” Stansbury said. “There’s so many breakdowns for us offensively. We still make a lot of mistakes defensively. But, again, we’ve gotten better. We just gotta keep taking ‘em one at a time. The biggest game of the year is that next one.”
• Western Kentucky and Old Dominion will meet Saturday for the 33rd time in a series dating back to 1970. The teams have split the previous 32 games and ODU has won four straight.
• Western Kentucky has made at least one 3 in 922 straight games.
• WKU has made more free throws (246) than its opponents have attempted (227) this season.
• Justin Johnson needs 140 points to reach 1,000 for his career.
• Ben Lawson is fifth in WKU history with 157 career blocks. Elgrace Wilborn is fourth with 161.
• WKU senior Pancake Thomas has 26 assists and seven turnovers in his last six games.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop