MIAMI — Western Kentucky’s chance to earn a road split through the state of Florida comes at Florida International at 6:30 p.m. CST tonight.
The Hilltoppers (13-13, 7-8 Sun Belt Conference) have lost eight of their past 11 and continue to struggle to put a complete game together.
In an 84-78 loss Thursday at Florida Atlantic, four Hilltoppers scored in double figures and sophomore forward George Fant scored a career-high 25 points, but the Owls shot 59 percent from the floor and guards Greg Gantt and Stefan Moody had a combined 57 points.
Fant called the loss a “half-step forward” for his team, citing improved offensive play coupled with a poor defensive effort. That can’t be the case tonight against FIU, which is one of the most improved teams in the league this season.
The Panthers (13-12, 8-8 SBC) won eight games last season, but this season they are one of eight teams fighting for a first-round bye in the upcoming league tournament.
“They’re playing well,” WKU coach Ray Harper said. “They’ve been a little bit like us. They lost on Thursday at North Texas by 11. They led Middle Tennessee at home by 17 and lost. They play extremely hard and they’re going to press, then back into the zone. If you’re making shots I think you’re going to be OK.”
The Hilltoppers are 11-3 all-time at FIU and haven’t lost in Miami since 2009. International has lost four of its last six, including consecutive losses to North Texas and Troy.
Junior forward Tymell Murphy is FIU’s main offensive key, scoring 15.3 points while grabbing 7.3 rebounds per game. Junior guard Malik Smith scores 13.8 per game, and freshman forward Jerome Frink adds 10 points per game.
“For FIU, their coach is Coach (Richard) Pitino, so you know what you’re going to get out of them,” Fant said of the son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino. “They’re doing good right now. FIU wasn’t really clicking and they’re picking it up. All these teams in conference are capable of doing anything any given night. You never know what will happen.”
Fant’s 25 points Thursday were his most ever at WKU, eclipsing the 24 he scored Dec. 27 – against FIU. That night in E.A. Diddle Arena, Fant was 9 of 12 from the floor, 6 of 6 from the line and had five rebounds and two blocks.
Harper’s hope is that Fant puts together back-to-back, big-time performances, and that the Warren Central High School product gets some help to go along with it.
“We got the ball inside, George did a good job that night, probably his best night of the season,” Harper said. “I thought we made a conscious effort to throw it inside that night, and I thought George did a good job of finishing.
“That’s who he is. That’s who he was last season, that’s who he had been his whole career. We’re going to continue to get him the basketball. Now, we just need some other guys to follow up and start playing their best basketball.”
Western Kentucky is alone in fourth place in the SBC’s East Division, but the gap has tightened going into today’s action.
The Hilltoppers are a half-game behind tonight’s opponent, Florida International, and a half-game ahead of Florida Atlantic. Troy is alone in sixth but 11⁄2-games behind FIU for third.
The league’s division winners get opening-round byes next month in Hot Springs, Ark., then teams are seeded by record 3-11. If the season had ended Friday, WKU would be the sixth seed.
The Tops have five regular-season game remaining, three at home and three against teams with a winning record.
6:30 p.m. CST today
U.S. Century Bank Arena (5,000) in Miami
Western Kentucky (13-13, 7-8 Sun Belt Conference)
Florida International (13-12, 8-8)
WKYU-PBS, Insight Cable Channel 11/ESPN3/ESPN Full Court
Ray Harper (24-21, second year; 366-84 overall), Western Kentucky; Richard Pitino (13-12, first year; 13-12 overall), Florida International.
O’karo Akamune, F, 6-7, jr. (3.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg); George Fant, F, 6-6, so. (12.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg); Brandon Harris, G, 6-1, jr. (8.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg); Jamal Crook, G, 6-3, sr. (12.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg); T.J. Price, G, 6-4, so. (14.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg).
Jerome Frink, F, 6-6, fr. (10.0 ppg, 6-6 rpg); Tymell Murphy, F, 6-5, jr. (15.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg); Tola Akomolafe, F, 6-6, sr. (3.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg); Deric Hill, G, 5-9, so. (5.3 ppg, 2.8 apg); Malik Smith, G, 6-2, jr. (13.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg).
WKU leads 28-5.
WKU won 76-63 in Bowling Green on Dec. 27.
Last time out
WKU lost 84-78 at Florida Atlantic on Thursday; Florida International lost 69-61 at Troy on Thursday.