MIAMI, Fla. – An area where the Hilltoppers have traditionally succeeded turned into a weekend they hope can be used as proper motivation moving forward.
They’ll need it with one of Conference USA’s toughest teams coming to E.A. Diddle Arena on Thursday.
Western Kentucky held firm to a first-place tiebreaker atop the Conference USA standings going into the Florida trip, but will return with two losses by a combined nine points to Florida Atlantic and Florida International.
WKU hadn’t lost to FAU since 2013, which was also the last time the Hilltoppers lost on FIU’s home court.
The Hilltoppers (14-8 overall, 7-3 Conference USA) have to rest up their starting five that is becoming their only reliable unit ahead of facing Louisiana Tech, which moved to 8-2 in the conference after beating Old Dominion 76-73 on Saturday afternoon.
“Obviously we’re disappointed, but our goals haven’t changed,” WKU redshirt junior forward Carson Williams said. “We’re going to come back and keep fighting and hopefully pick up some more wins the rest of the season.”
E.A. Diddle Arena has been a safe haven for the Hilltoppers, who are 9-1 on their home court this season and 5-0 in the conference. Coach Rick Stansbury knows the Diddle Arena atmosphere will help a team that needs it any way it can. In two games in Florida, WKU played in front of around 1,900 total in announced attendance.
For all of conference play, the Hilltoppers have played with a shallow bench, but no stretch has produced less from the reserves than this weekend. WKU was outscored 14-0 in bench points at FAU and 22-0 against the Panthers on Saturday. Freshman Isaiah Cozart played five minutes and had one rebound and a steal. Redshirt freshman Jeremiah Gambrell played 12 minutes and had one rebound while missing two 3-point attempts.
The Hilltoppers are hurt most by the absence of senior guard Camron Justice, who has provided an extra body defensively while whatever scoring he gives has been considered a plus in Stansbury’s eyes. Justice has battled back from injuries during the conference stretch and has missed three entire games and only played off the bench for one half in two other games.
“We know what we’re fighting and we need every ounce of energy we can get to help this team,” Stansbury said. “Crowd, fans and students, we can feed off that. Today, it was just us. Proud of our kids, they found a way to dig deep. Coming back home is important, we need energy from that building.”
WKU hasn’t lost back-to-back games since its last two non-conference games against Rhode Island and Belmont, the exact time it started reshaping its identity without standout center Charles Bassey.
Now with three losses in the conference, WKU will next play the highest-ranked conference team in KenPomeroy’s advanced analytic rankings. As of Saturday afternoon, the Bulldogs were No. 53 in the KenPom rankings, leading No. 63 North Texas and the 116th-ranked Hilltoppers in those standings.
Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss are the last two pre-scheduled home games before bonus play determines the last four games of the regular season.
“We have to bounce back,” WKU redshirt senior guard/forward Jared Savage said. “We can’t go up there feeling sorry for ourselves. We’ll go back there with the crowd behind us and have to get two wins. Nothing short of that.”