GAME NOTES: Western Kentucky will attempt to win back-to-back games for the first time this season when the Hilltoppers host the Western Carolina Catamounts at E.A. Diddle Arena Saturday night as part of the Triple Crown Cancun Challenge.
Through three games, Western Carolina is just 1-2 this season. The Catamounts lone win was a 95-68 rout of NAIA foe Mars Hill in the second game of the season. In the two losses, Western Carolina is being outscored by an average of 13 points per game after a 79-63 defeat on the road against Wichita State in the first matchup of the event. From here, the Catamounts travel to Cancun, Mexico to take on Austin Peay.
Western Kentucky has split its first two contests but did earn a win in the Cancun Challenge with a 74-54 decision over Austin Peay last Tuesday. In the season opener the Hilltoppers narrowly missed out on earning a road victory, falling 67-64 in overtime to Southern Mississippi. The Hilltoppers will also travel to Cancun next to face off with Iowa.
In only two previous meetings, Western Kentucky has come out on top in both instances. The most recent matchup was back in 1988, when the Hilltoppers posted an 84-64 triumph at home.
Points from the free throw line had a devastating effect on Western Carolina's matchup against Wichita State. While Wichita State earned 26 points on 27 attempts from the charity stripe, the Catamounts finished with just a single point on four attempts. Four different players scored in double figures in the contest led by Trey Sumler (18 points), who also handed out six assists. Tawaski King added 11 points, seven rebounds and had the only free throw for Western Carolina.
Just as in the loss to Wichita State, Western Carolina has a quartet of double figure scorers on the roster this season. Sumler (16.7 ppg, 5.7 apg) has been the go-to scoring option and a strong distributor of the ball as well. Head coach Larry Hunter has really leaned on the redshirt junior guard, as Sumler has averaged a team-high 35 minutes per game. No other player on the roster is playing more than 28 minutes. King (12.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg) has been the squad's top rebounder while also managing to score at an efficient rate (54.8 FG percentage). At 6-foot-8, he is one of a very limited number of sizable frontcourt options. Also in double figures on the young season are fellow starters Tom Tankelewicz (12.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and Brandon Boggs (11.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg). James Sinclair (6.0 ppg) has been the top reserve, playing more than 22 minutes a game.
Although the end result was an easy victory for Western Kentucky against Austin Peay, the Hilltoppers got all they could handle in the first half. The score was knotted at 33-33 at the break after both teams knocked down 13 field goals, including four 3-pointers. After halftime though Western Kentucky took over, connecting on 51.7 percent of its shots while holding the Governors to 25.9 percent shooting. Jamal Crook (16 points, 9 assists) and George Fant (15 points, 14 rebounds) both turned in impressive performances.
Crook and Fant have been a strong combination for Western Kentucky this season. Crook has gotten it done across the board with his ability to score (16.5 ppg), rebound (6.0 pg) and distribute (5.5 apg). The senior guard has also been a menace on the defensive end, collecting three steals per contest. Fant meanwhile is averaging a double-double (12.5 ppg, 10.5 rpg) on the season and has been a force in protecting the rim by swatting three shots per game. At 6-foot-6, Fant lacks the size to be able to compete against more imposing frontcourts but thus far that has not been issue. Forward Teeng Akol (6- foot-11) is the more traditional post player but has not been nearly as effective a scorer (7.5 ppg) or rebounder (3.5 pg) as Fant. Sophomore guard T.J. Price (6.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg), along with Crook and Fant, is playing more than 30 minutes a game, but needs to improve on his finishing as he has connected on only 5-of-25 shots.
It will be no surprise if the Hilltoppers rely heavily on the efforts of Fant and Crook going forward. While Western Carolina will be aware of that, actually stopping the duo is another matter.
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