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WKU Basketball: What Went Right and What Went Wrong in WKU's 86-81 Win over Murray State
The Hilltoppers took down their in-state rivals for the first time in 10 years and continue to look good in the opening stanza to the Steve Lutz era.
Western Kentucky has their first win over one of their longest-running rivals since 2013 as the Hilltoppers returned to the Bluegrass State and overcame an early second-half comeback effort by the Racers to clinch the victory, 86-81, Tuesday night.
Steve Lutz’s team continues to impress and even if the non-conference schedule doesn’t provide a ton of huge tests, WKU fans should be happy with what they’ve seen over the first three games of the season.
It wasn’t by any means a perfect evening: The second half started a bit shaky and the Tops were the unfortunate beneficiary of some generous whistles, but WKU got it done and are 2-1 on the season, and handed the Racers their first loss in the process.
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Big Picture - by Fletcher Keel
Tuesday night was another example of just how quickly things have changed when it comes to the Western Kentucky basketball program.
It was best evidenced in the opening eight minutes of the second half: Holding a 43-34 halftime lead, the Tops were on the wrong side of a 19-6 Racer run as they took their first lead of the game.
Much like what we discussed in the aftermath of the Wichita State loss, a Rick Stansbury team would have completely folded after a run like that, allowing the Racers to fully take control of the game and never have the opportunity to wrestle it away.
Instead, the Hilltoppers were able to weather the run and start re-taking the game to the Racers, ultimately ending the game on a 12-7
The Tops did some weathering in the first half, too, overcoming poor officiating (more on that in Red Threads) and some sloppy play on the offensive end, committing eight first-half turnovers, to take a nine-point lead into the halftime break, a score that could have easily been a nine-point deficit.
It’s beginning to be more and more evident how Lutz was able to coach his way to consecutive NCAA Tournaments and why he was appealing to fill Stansbury’s seat. It’s still early in the year, and there’s time for things to go hilariously wrong, but I’m liking what I’ve seen from the Tops so far, and you should be, too.
What Went Right- by Jake Gary
The Tops continue to look like a much improved team from last year, with the difference being night and day. One of the areas this is most seen in is with improved effort and intensity, especially in the paint: WKU finished with 32 rebounds (though still were out-rebounded by two) and three blocks, fighting for every rebound and loose ball that they could.
After shooting an abysmal 29.6% from the floor against the Shockers, the Tops had a much better night, going 52.6% from the floor, getting a huge boost from the aforementioned paint presence (42 points) and actually hitting some threes (8-for-16).
It felt as if the gameplan was to attack the paint, and Indian Hills Community College transfer Don McHenry and his game-high 22 points did just that. Down the stretch, he had back-to-back and-ones on drives to the basket that helped lead the Toppers to victory.
Dionte Allen also lit it up from deep, going 4-for-5 on from three-point range, finishing with 18 points.
Just like against Wichita State, Western held a halftime lead, starting hot and jumping out to a 10 point lead within eight minutes before, ultimately, holding their nine-point halftime advantage.
The hot start definitely contributed to the win, and is very encouraging to see after certain…slow starts…the team has had at times in the last tenure. What was different against the Racers than against the Shockers was the Tops’ ability to close out the game.
After trading leads for most of the second half, they built a five-point lead and never unhanded it. Murray was making plays, but the Hilltoppers answered every time. When it was time to knock down free throws, they hit those as well. Overall, closing the game out like that was a fantastic job by the coaches and the players executing.
What Went Wrong - by Jake Gary
If I was going to put a finger on what went wrong, the first thing I’d look to would be the defense. Not as a whole, there was good effort and hustle out there for sure. But the transition defense allowed a lot of points, even at times when the guys getting back on defense weren’t even outnumbered. Switching on defense seemed a little shaky as well, often times leading to either someone being out of position, someone getting beat off the dribble, or someone open for a shot.
Rob Perry made a living out of abusing this and led Murray State scores with 21 points.
The fouls were a problem as well. I won’t speak on the officiating, but I will say Western committed 24 fouls. That is a lot of fouls. It led to Murray shooting 32 free throws, converting 23 of them into points. It may have had something to do with officiating, but they were certainly fouling a lot tonight.
Despite all of the whistles, the Hilltoppers only had one player foul out (Enoch Kalambay).
Overall, though, there’s not that much to be concerned about after this performance. Just some small stuff to work on.
Red Threads - by Fletcher Keel
Some final stray thoughts for your Wednesday morning as the Hilltoppers move to 2-1 on the young season.
Jake said he won’t speak on the officiating - but I’m more than happy to! I’m far from a “blame the refs” kind of guy, but the performance by the men in stripes, especially in the first half, was not great. In the opening 20 minutes, the foul disparity was 13-4, with the Tops being on the wrong end of that count, and I promise you it wasn’t because Murray wasn’t being aggressive. There were multiple times where the Tops were getting almost tackled underneath the basket and no foul was called but as soon as WKU got on the defensive end of the floor, they’d get whistled for a ticky-tack reach-in foul. Things were righted, somewhat, in the second half, and hopefully it’s just an anomaly we’ll forget about in two month’s time, but it was really frustrating to watch.
Another thing Jake mentioned that I want to touch on is the performance of McHenry. In our brand new preview feature, One Big Thing, my One Big Thing was wondering who would become “that dude” for the Tops this year? I think we have our answer. Not only did he lead all scorers, he also went a perfect 8-8 from the free throw line and was fearless in driving to the rim. He does have a tendency to play really fast, which led to a few unnecessary turnovers, but so far I’m liking what I’m seeing and I suspect he’ll be a fan favorite by the end of the year, if not sooner.
Not to “well actually” everything Jake touched on, but I’d like to help pinpoint what wasn’t quite right about the defense: The biggest weak spot was in guarding the backdoor, specifically under the rim It seemed like if Murray wanted to sneak a guy underneath along the baseline, they were able to do so with ease. I also think Murray spaced out their offense a bit more than the Tops saw in either of their first two games. It felt like WKU couldn’t get quite as set as they would have liked on defense, with the Racers trying to stretch them out. Fortunately for WKU fans, the Tops didn’t allow that to disrupt their intensity, especially when there was a rebound or a loose ball to go after. The ability to adapt is impressive and, again, not something I’m sure we would have seen last year.
Time for Remmemberin’ Some Dudes: Throughout the broadcast (which I don’t know if it was a Murray State production, but it sure felt like it), they would show highlights of some of the more recent matchups in the rivalry. One such game, the last meeting in 2014, sent me back in time looking at the players on the floor. George Fant. T.J. Price. Chris Harrison-Docks(!). Ben Lawson (!!!). What a team. What a time. I don’t consider myself an “old” WKU fan, but after that flashback, I started to feel my age a bit.
The Tops led for 31:15 of the 40 minutes. That’ll do.
While McHenry is going to have a lot of the focus after his 22-point performance, don’t let the two Topper “mainstays” in Allen or Khristian Lander go unforgotten. There’s some talk on social media about why neither are starting (specifically Allen), but I actually think them being the 6th and 7th men will work. Think of them as the Josh Anderson-type for this team. Different types of players, of course, but still a starting-caliber that you can bring in at the first rotation to give fresh legs and a big boost.