WKU survives nonconference slate, faces daunting CUSA schedule

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Thirteen games in, Western Kentucky has plenty of momentum to draw upon as it ventures into its fourth season of Conference USA action.

The Hilltoppers (8-5) finished their nonconference schedule with a 72-55 win at Austin Peay on Friday. They got that win with just seven available players after playing the first 12 games with only eight.

Western managed to win 8 of 13 to begin the year and lose five by an average margin of 4.4 points to Missouri State (11-3), Villanova (12-0), Ohio (6-5), Wisconsin (5-7) and Belmont (8-5). It won seven nonconference games against Division I opponents for the first time since 2013.

The Hilltoppers’ league opener against Louisiana Tech at 7 p.m. Thursday presents the Tops an opportunity to keep their momentum rolling while simultaneously starting fresh.

“It’s basically a new season. We’re at 0-0,” WKU senior guard Darius Thompson said. “Conference play starts and we gotta start off good. We gotta start off with a win. We got two, three days off, come back to practice ready to work hard and get back to it.

“With the number of guys we play and how much we play I think we need a break.”

Thompson was nothing short of sensational Friday. The former Virginia and Tennessee guard scored 21 points, grabbed seven rebounds, had six assists and six steals – and played all 40 minutes without a turnover.

His performance joined with that of redshirt-junior guard Lamonte Bearden and freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth gave – and could give – Western a three-headed attack that's tough for the opposition to deal with.

“It’s hard to guard,” Thompson said. “If everybody’s going, you can give the ball to Monte, you can give the ball to Taveion, you can give the ball to me and just let us work out and play hard. Everybody’s capable of making plays.”

That trio made up for the absence Friday of freshman guard Jake Ohmer who was held out after getting concussed Tuesday against Belmont. Without Ohmer second-year WKU coach Rick Stansbury had just seven players while the program still waits on word from the NCAA on the clearance of freshman guard Josh Anderson and redshirt-sophomore forward Moustapha Diagne.

Stansbury will give his team three days off before it reports back for duty Tuesday. When they get back – in all likelihood still having only eight players available – all focus will be on starting a run toward WKU’s first regular-season conference championship since 2009.

“We’re gonna start with a really good team right off the bat: Louisiana Tech. One of the better teams, picked up toward the top of the league,” Stansbury said. “It’ll be a challenge for us. But it starts a new season. I’m proud the way the guys dug this one out because this is a trap game in a lot of ways, not just the holidays but the (Ohmer) situation, the foul trouble – but these guys found a way to really come out of here with a good win.”

The Bulldogs of Tech started their season off 5-0 before going 4-4 over their last eight. They'll be the first of 18 league opponents for WKU inside a conference with three teams in the top-100 of the RPI and two more within the top 135.

Western is 32-28 against CUSA since joining the league in 2014.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop