NCAA Men’s Basketball 2021:  La Tech vs WKU Gm 2

Western Kentucky’s Josh Anderson (right) dribbles by Louisiana Tech’s Jace Bass on Saturday at E.A. Diddle Arena.

The Western Kentucky men’s basketball team has been unable to produce a series sweep in the first two weeks of a new-look Conference USA schedule, where teams play the same opponent at the same location on back-to-back days.

The Hilltoppers won the first game at Charlotte Jan. 1 to open league play, before falling in overtime 75-71 the second day. WKU survived Louisiana Tech 66-64 on Friday at E.A. Diddle Arena, but fell behind early in Saturday’s rematch against the Bulldogs and were unable to complete a comeback, losing 63-58.

“You’ve just got to be able to find that edge, that edge on the second night,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said after Saturday’s loss. “They all count as one win and they all count as one loss. Again, I don’t buy into all this stuff, these two games and same opponent, I just don’t buy into it. They keep score, they throw the ball up. You’ve got to get yourself mentally ready to play.”

WKU’s early 2-2 league record comes as a surprise to many, after the Hilltoppers entered the season as the league favorite and went through nonconference play 7-2, with the only losses coming to Power Five programs West Virginia and Louisville. Charlotte and Louisiana Tech were picked to finish sixth and seventh in C-USA, respectively.

But there have been similar results across C-USA, and only one team – UAB – remains unbeaten after two weeks of league play. The Blazers moved to 9-1 overall by sweeping Southern Miss last weekend.

“Can we cancel this? We’re done and we get the automatic?” UAB first-year head coach Andy Kennedy joked with reporters after Saturday’s 62-58 win.

UAB didn’t get a chance to play the first weekend of league games, after having its series at North Texas postponed due to positive COVID-19 tests and subsequent contact tracing within the UAB program. The Blazers are scheduled to play two games at Charlotte next weekend.

“I looked at it the other day because I was looking at some numbers and I have been a head coach almost 450 games and everybody says, ‘Oh, that was an ugly win.’ When you’re sitting where I’m sitting, they’re all beautiful after the fact,” Kennedy said. “Now, there are things that we need to do a lot better, but what I’ve got to do a better job of now as I’m becoming an older coach is try to accentuate the positive. To me, that’s what I’m going to do after tonight.

“ ... You’ve got to protect home floor. It’s hard to play somebody back-to-back, and I was just glad we were able to fight through it. We’re still certainly not at full strength. Hopefully we can get there sooner rather than later. Now we’ve got the opportunity to go and do this on the road – another challenge for this team – back-to-back against a quality Charlotte team.”

The Blazers’ sweep was a feat not seen often through two weeks of league play. Rice was the only team the first weekend to claim victories in its back-to-back series by sweeping UTSA, including a 15-point victory the second night after a nine-point win the first. The Owls lost the first game of last weekend’s series with UTEP and won the second.

Old Dominion joined UAB as the only programs with C-USA sweeps last weekend, knocking off FAU twice after splitting games at FIU the week before. FAU is currently the only team in C-USA without a league win and sits at 0-2. North Texas – picked second and the only other team to receive first-place votes in the league’s preseason poll – split two games at UTSA.

All three C-USA series sweeps have come on the winning team’s home floor.

“I think we’re all just kind of adjusting to the new protocol and the way we have to go around with things, but the back-to-back, it’s definitely hard mentally to play a team and then come back the very next day and play that same team. It’s just different,” WKU senior guard Josh Anderson said after Saturday’s loss. “ ... Not having (many fans), I feel like the players and the benches, that’s where we have to get our energy from.”

Despite being on its home floor in front of 1,123 fans Saturday against Louisiana Tech – 21 more than were at the game Friday – WKU was unable to close out the series. The Bulldogs used a 20-0 first-half run and built a 21-point lead just over 12 minutes into the game.

Stansbury said he doesn’t believe fatigue played a factor in Saturday’s performance. Four Hilltoppers – Hollingsworth, Anderson, Dayvion McKnight and Charles Bassey – all played over 30 minutes Saturday, but WKU cut the deficit to 14 by halftime, outscored Louisiana Tech 34-25 in the second half and got within a point with 1:40 to play, before the Bulldogs eventually closed out the five-point victory.

“You’ve got to find a way to push through it. Again, they don’t score but 25 points the second half. That’s all they get. You just can’t be down 14 in that stretch to fight back,” Stansbury said. “Now, it’s very obvious when you’re down and you’ve got to fight back, you lose some energy on the second night – that wasn’t the first night. It takes a lot of energy to fight yourself out of that hole and we had some guys that were tired. I went with some veterans out there.”

WKU also overcame an 11-point first-half deficit in the opener at Charlotte, and the Hilltoppers were down by as many as nine in the second half of the second game against the 49ers before forcing overtime.

The Hilltoppers aren’t scheduled to play back-to-back this weekend as it enters its rivalry series against Marshall. WKU is scheduled to host the Thundering Herd on Friday at 4 p.m. – the game was originally scheduled for Thursday, but later moved due to COVID-19 issues within Marshall’s program – before traveling to Huntington, W.Va., for a 1 p.m. game Sunday.

WKU is scheduled to play back-to-back games the rest of the season following the Marshall series, however, starting with two games at Middle Tennessee Jan. 23-24.

“Just come out with energy, that’s just what I feel like it all comes down to,” WKU senior guard Taveion Hollingsworth said after Saturday’s loss. “It’s just energy. When we play back-to-back, we’ve really got no excuses for it. You’ve just got to be ready, you’ve got to be prepared to play before the game even starts. We’ve just got to come out focused and prepared.”{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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