Tops, Racers set to renew rivalry after nine-year break

Published 3:43 pm Monday, November 13, 2023

By Jeff Nations, Bowling Green Daily News

Western Kentucky first-year men’s basketball coach Steve Lutz is about to get his first taste of an old rivalry.

The Hilltoppers visit former Ohio Valley Conference rival Murray State for the first matchup between the programs since 2014 in a series that dates back even further than 1948 when both schools were founding members of the OVC. Since that inaugural 1949-50 season, the in-state rivals have met 89 times with the Tops holding a 54-35 advantage in the series during that span.

Tuesday’s matchup at Murray’s CFSB Center is the first of a four-year deal, with the Racers set to visit E.A. Diddle Arena for the first time since 2013 next season. Game time is 7 p.m., with ESPN+ set to broadcast.

WKU (1-1) likely faces another spirited crowd after battling to a 71-61 loss its last time out on the road against Wichita State at the Charles Koch Arena in Wichita, Kan. In front of 6,351 mostly hostile fans, the Tops endured one of the their worst-ever shooting performances from long range. WKU’s 0-for-21 night from beyond 3-point range snapped a streak of consecutive games with a made 3-pointer at 1,135 spanning 35 years – which was the third-longest such mark in NCAA men’s basketball.

Lutz didn’t fault his team for taking those shots and missing them, but he wasn’t always happy about the timing of some of those 3-pointers against the Shockers.

“I thought in the first half we took seven or eight bad ones,” Lutz said Hilltopper Radio Network postgame radio show after Thursday’s loss. “We talked about driving the ball to the rim and we talked a lot about getting the ball to the basket and getting to the free-throw line, and we only had four free throws in the first half. So you’re obviously not listening to the game plan in that respect. When we have guys that check into the game and shoot a 3 as soon as the get in the game – and they haven’t been in the game 30 seconds – that’s not good basketball.”

Junior point guard Don McHenry led the Hilltoppers with 12 points and added five rebounds in the loss to the Shockers – a game the Tops led 29-27 at halftime, outrebounded Wichita State 49-47 and created 19 turnovers while only committing seven.

“Our guys did some good things, but let’s not get away from the fact that in the second half we have to play better defense,” Lutz said.

Newcomers McHenry and redshirt senior guard Brandon Newman lead WKU at 10 points per game, with fifth-year forward Rodney Howard and senior guard Khristian Lander not far behind at 9.5 points each.

Senior forward Tyrone Marshall Jr. also had a solid outing against the Shockers, tallying seven points, eight rebounds, three steals and a pair of blocks for the Tops.

It wasn’t enough to counter Wichita State’s effective isolation strategy in the second half as hulking Shockers simply took it to the Tops over the final 20 minutes.

“They started getting to the rim more,” Marshall said. “They started getting to the line, knocking down free throws.”

Murray State (2-0) is coming off a 78-72 home win Friday against Tennessee Tech. Junior forward Nick Ellington, a transfer from Eastern Illinois, leads the Racers with 17 points and 11 rebounds per game. Murray State has five players averaging in double digits as the Racers have scored at a clip of 84.5 points per outing – both home wins.

Murray State, now in their second season in the Missouri Valley Conference, have won 26 straight nonconference home games.

Racers coach Steve Prohm expects a big crowd for Tuesday’s renewal of the rivalry against the Hilltoppers.

“I know that game means a lot to a lot of people around here,” Prohm said in his postgame news conference Friday. “It’s a great rivalry. We haven’t played in nine years. So obviously it’ll be a big night.”

Lutz’s team faced its first road test last week. Another awaits Tuesday in Murray for the new-look Tops, which feature 10 newcomers on the roster (including redshirting graduate guard Terrion Murdix).

“This should prepare us for (Tuesday),” Lutz said of the road loss in Wichita. “These are the ones that just burn at you, just burn you inside because I’m not going to say we should’ve won but we had every opportunity to win.”{&end}