Western Kentucky has to figure out a way to pick itself up off the mat after a thorough beating from No. 24 Middle Tennessee on Thursday.
“It won’t affect us,” said WKU freshman Taveion Hollingsworth after the 82-64 loss in Murfreesboro, Tenn. “We’re gonna put this loss behind us and hopefully we see ‘em again.”
Sure, WKU could meet its nemesis MTSU next week in Frisco, Texas, the site of the Conference USA tournament. But the Tops would only get that chance if they can pull off wins Thursday night in the quarterfinals and Friday afternoon in the semifinals.
The Blue Raiders (24-5, 16-1 Conference USA) emphatically clinched a second-straight league title by thoroughly dominating Western (22-8, 14-3 CUSA) in front of more than 11,000 fans inside the Murphy Center. The defeat left the Hilltoppers in a tie for second place with Old Dominion going into Saturday – although WKU owns a tiebreaker scenario having beaten ODU twice this year.
Still, Rick Stansbury’s team would prefer one more win to finish in second place which would equate to an 8:30 p.m. game Thursday against the No. 7 or No. 10 seed. A defeat likely makes WKU the No. 3 team and gives it a 9 p.m. game Thursday against either the sixth-best or 11-best team in the league.
Western tips off against Alabama Birmingham (18-12, 9-8 CUSA) at 7 p.m. Saturday in the regular-season finale.
“They all count as one win and one loss – we knew it wasn’t gonna be easy. Those guys (MTSU) are good,” Stansbury said Thursday. “We got to get back out and get ready for another tough one Saturday night. We’re going to senior night at UAB. So nothing’s easy on the road.”
Western Kentucky’s performance was completely atypical from the team who had won six straight coming in. The Hilltoppers shot 44.4 percent – and just 40.7 percent in the second half – after scoring the last five games with a shooting clip of at least 55 percent in every contest during that stretch.
The Tops also had a measly four assists (none in the second half), 10 turnovers and only four fastbreak points. It was a bad recipe that handed WKU its worst loss in Murfreesboro since 2013 when it fell by 19 points.
“We didn’t play our best, but we shouldn’t have excuses to lose like that,” Hollingsworth said.
Stansbury wouldn’t go so far as to measure Thursday’s defeat in symbolic terms. He had spent the days leading up one of the nation’s biggest games by expressing how confident his team was, how his program had put itself in position to challenge for a league title and how the Hilltoppers will be a force to be reckoned with in years to come.
No. 24 Middle cared not for those narratives, displaying a mesmerizing show of balanced offense, suffocating defense and toughness – not physical and mental.
The Blue Raiders have now won 13 f 15 over Western and seven of eight at home in the series.
“It’s never easy on the road. You’re playing against a top-25 team (Thursday). And those guys are good,” Stansbury said. “I measure some things we could’ve and should’ve done better within those 40 minutes and we have to do to beat a good team like that on the road. There’s no margin for error on the road. We had too many mental things that we did that led to some baskets that shouldn’t have led to some baskets.”
Saturday’s game between WKU and UAB won’t have the fanfare it was supposed to have when the season began. The Tops held up their end of the bargain by at least being a threat to frontrunner MTSU, but the Blazers have been wildly inconsistent having gone 5-6 since losing in Bowling Green on Jan. 18.
The losses have sent UAB down to sixth place, one game back of Texas San Antonio and one game up on North Texas and Florida International.
Robert Ehsan’s squad is still, undoubtedly, dangerous – it just whipped fourth-place Marshall by 14 on Thursday. Seniors Chris Cokley (17.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg) and William Lee (9.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 2.1 bpg) will also give UAB an emotional lift by playing their final game at Bartow Arena on Saturday.
Western Kentucky will need to show more fight than it was able to muster in the second half against MTSU in order to create a slice of momentum toward next week.
• The Blazers lead the series with WKU 22-14 and are 15-4 in games played in Birmingham, Ala.
• Western Kentucky has an RPI of 51, a BPI of 57, a KenPom ranking of 58, a KPI ranking of 64 and a Sagarin ranking of 75.
• The Hilltoppers have outscored their opponents 1,192-854 in the paint this season.
• Western has made at least one 3 in 968 straight games.
• Senior center Dwight Coleby (57) is tied with Ben Lawson and Darius Hall for the ninth-most blocks in a single WKU season. Jeremy Evans is eighth with 61.
• WKU senior Darius Thompson has 144 assists, the ninth-most assists in a single WKU season. A.J. Slaughter is eighth with 147.
• WKU senior Justin Johnson (1,562) is 15th on WKU’s all-time scoring list. A.J. Slaughter is 14th with 1,581 career points.
• Johnson is fifth with 977 career rebounds at WKU. Jim McDaniels is fourth with 1,118.
• Hollingsworth (401) needs 12 points to move past Derrick Gordon (412) for the third-most points in a single WKU season by a freshman.
• Johnson is tied for seventh in WKU history with Courtney Lee, Boris Siakam and Orlando Mendez-VAldez with 127 games played as a Hilltopper. George Fant is sixth with 129.
• The Hilltoppers have outscored their opponents 1,216-896 in the paint this season.
• Johnson has 34 career double-doubles, tied with Greg Smith for the fifth-most in a WKU career. Chris Marcus is fourth with 38.
• Johnson (485) is ninth for free throws attempted in a WKU career. McDaniels is eighth with 514.
• Johnson is ninth in WKU history with 3,490 minutes played. Slaughter is eighth with 3,550.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop