"We always think we can win. We're confident and we think we can do this again." said junior guard Caden Dickerson. -junior guard Caden Dickerson.
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — One down, three to go. The WKU men's basketball team defeated their first round foe Louisiana-Monroe 74-60 in the first round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Friday night. The Hilltoppers (17-15, 10-10) were paced by the offensive efforts of T.J. Price and George Fant. Price scored 18 on 6-12 shooting from the field, and 3-6 shooting behind the arc. Fant dominated the inside during periods of the game, finishing 6-6 from the field with 12 points. Despite the fact the Tops led the entire way, Coach Ray Harper wasn't necessarily ecstatic after the game.
"Some areas we need to be better at tomorrow night. I thought we got a big lead and relaxed."
What the Hilltopper head coach was referring to was the fact that the Warhawks shot 56% from the field in the second half, including 66% from 3-point land. A WKU blowout wasn't unexpected. Coming into their first round match-up, Louisiana-Monroe held a record of 4-22. The Hilltoppers got off to a hot start in the opening minutes of the game with two quick baskets by T.J. Price. Price's second basket was WKU's first long range bucket, but it certainly would not be the team's last. Caden Dickerson made all three of his first 3-point shots, and Kevin Kaspar also hit three from distance. In fact, the Hilltoppers had a season high 11 3-pointers. There's no doubt that seeing Dickerson get hot spread to the rest of the team. Dickerson has had an injury plagued career on the hill, but his teammates say his performance Friday night wasn't unexpected.
"Every shooter goes through a slump. I went through one the beginning of the season. We've been great teammates to him. We knew he was going to come back because he's always one of the first ones after practice to shoot and stay after. When you put in the hard work, the hard work is going to show. That's what you all saw tonight. He put in the hard work and it went into the game." said T.J. Price of Dickerson.
WKU led 14-5 early in the first half, setting the tone for the rest of the game. George Fant and Brandon Harris scored on two straight possessions each and WKU went into the half with a 22-point cushion. With countless run outs and eight 3's in the half, it looked as if no matter what ULM had planned for the second half, they wouldn't be able to catch up. The Warhawks did not quit, however. The second half began where the first left off. A few run outs and George Fant's third dunk of the game kept the Hilltoppers with a comfortable lead. That's exactly the way WKU played defense the rest of the game, comfortable. A three-point goal by ULM's R.J. McCray brought the Warhawks within 13, but T.J. Price stepped up on the next possession. With the crowd on their feet, Price ended the ULM run with a driving layup while also drawing a foul. After hitting the free throw with 11 minutes to go, ULM still didn't quit. WKU looked like a team playing with a big lead and suffered a few defensive breakdowns along with some examples of poor shot selection. Yet again, those poor Hilltopper possessions were short lived. Trent Mackey drained a long distance shot bringing ULM one step closer to the Hilltopper lead, but a scramble in the paint saw O'karo Akamune come up with the ball. The WKU forward tossed the ball out to a wide open Price who drained the 20-footer and WKU never looked back. Despite the mixed feelings from the team after the win, the team still exuded an experienced confidence.
"We always think we can win. We're confident and we think we can do this again." said junior guard Caden Dickerson.
That confidence will have to be in full effect if the Tops plan to get past the Jaguars of South Alabama Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. They hold the three seed in the tournament, but WKU took care of business in Diddle Arena against USA less than two weeks ago. One point that Coach Harper made looking forward to Saturday's game is they must contain Sun Belt Player of the Year, Agustine Rubit.
"He went 8-18 against last time we faced him. We'll take that." added Coach Harper.
One thing is for certain, despite the means, the Hilltoppers continue to do what they do best. Survive and move on.