Tops take down old rival with 86-81 win over Racers
Published 4:05 pm Wednesday, November 15, 2023
By JEFF NATIONS, Bowling Green Daily News
MURRAY – Down goes another streak.
Western Kentucky’s men’s basketball team, still smarting over seeing its longstanding consecutive games with a made 3-pointer streak end in last week’s road loss to Wichita State, ended another impressive streak Tuesday night – only this time, it was the Hilltoppers’ opponent seeing a cherished run come to an end in WKU’s 86-81 road win over Murray State at the CFSB Center.
WKU (2-1) dealt the Racers their first nonconference home loss since 2017, a span of 27 consecutive victories.
After going 0-for-21 from 3-point range in last week’s loss to the Shockers, the Hilltoppers markedly improved with an 8-for-16 performance against Murray State (2-1). That solid shooting from long range reflected a good night overall for the Tops, who connected 52.6% (30-for-57) from the field.
“We’re going to be a good shooting team,” said WKU first-year head coach Steve Lutz, who picked up his first road victory leading the program Tuesday. “Now are we going to shoot 50% every night? I’m not going to look you in the eye and tell you that, but we’re not going to shoot 0% either. I think that this team is a 35 to maybe 40, 42% shooting team when we take good shots. When we don’t take good shots, we put ourselves in a tough position.”
After opening the game on a 6-0 run, the Tops maintained that momentum the entire first half. WKU never trailed over the first 20 minutes, building a lead that reached 11 points on Dontaie Allen’s 3-pointer with 11:25 to go.
The Racers trimmed that deficit to three, but another trey by Allen and a pull-up jumper by junior point guard Don McHenry stretched the Tops’ advantage back to nine at 43-34 by halftime.
It was a big night for Allen, who went 4 of 5 from 3-point range and scored 18 points. Fellow guard Khristian Lander, like Allen a holdover from last year’s team along with Tyrone Marshall Jr. and Fallou Diagne, also produced quality minutes with 12 points including a pair of 3s.
“I’ve said it before – they’re all good players,” Lutz said. “Coach Stansbury had good players here and those four guys that stayed, they’ve all been effective. Fallou’s just got to hang in there and get healthy and maybe his time will come as well. But Dontaie and Khristian, it was their night tonight and they were able to step up and ring the bell. I’m proud of them for that. I’m going to continue to expect them to be productive players and I don’t see any reason that they won’t be.”
The Racers rocked the Tops at the start of the second half, reeling off a 12-0 run that turned a nine-point deficit into a three-point lead on Malek Abdelgowad’s three-point play with 15:03 to play.
Allen ended that spurt with yet another 3-pointer to knot the score at 49.
“We’ve got to do a better job coming out of halftime, to be very frank with you,” Lutz said. “Our staff, myself included, we’ve got to do a better job of having the guys ready to play both offensively and defensively. I thought we had a couple good looks again tonight to start the second half. We just didn’t convert and then we allow them to get a little momentum and when the start getting a little momentum in their home arena, you’re going to make it really, really tough on yourself.”
Murray State pushed ahead by five on Justin Morgan’s 3-pointer that made it 56-51, yet another of what would be eight lead changes in the second half.
McHenry was a huge factor in keeping the Tops afloat and then ahead in the second half. His three-point play with 7:41 to go gave his team a five-point lead at 67-62. McHenry, playing just his third game for WKU, finished with a game-high 22 points.
“The thing about him is he comes from Juco, but bro he’s got everything you need,” Allen said of McHenry. “He’s a really good point guard for us. I’m excited for him.”
The lead didn’t last, as Rob Perry’s two made free throws pushed Murray back ahead by a point with 4:29 to go.
The Tops found a way to separate down the stretch. Rodney Howard’s bucket in the post put WKU up for good at 76-74 with 2:14 to go, Enoch Kalambay added to that with a pair of made free throws, and McHenry drove into the lane for a layup to finish a pivotal 5-1 run that stretched the lead to five with 1:09 to play.
The Racers cut that deficit to three points three more times, but on each ensuing possession the Tops drew fouls and hit their free throws – four straight by McHenry, then two more by Allen to set the final score at 86-81 with 14 seconds to go.
McHenry finished a perfect 8-for-8 from the free-throw line, combining a fearless penchant for finishing in the lane with a steady hand at the line.
“It is a part of my game and the floor was just opening up because of my teammates,” McHenry said. “The things we were doing, the screens and good play calling by coach opened a lot of things up for me and I was able to make some good plays.”
Brandon Newman added 11 points and Howard finished with 10 as the Tops placed five in double-digit scoring and won despite committing more turnovers (15-11) and getting out-rebounded (34-32) by the Racers.
“Obviously, that was our focus moving into the second half – we can’t settle for 3s, No. 1, which we didn’t shoot a bunch,” Lutz said. “I think we only shot eight in the first half. But we didn’t get to the free-throw line enough. We had one made free throw and I think they had 13. There’s a big difference there. We had plenty more shot attempts than they did in the first half, and we needed to make sure that we got to the free-throw line in addition to that in the second half.”
WKU is back in action Saturday against Kentucky State at E.A. Diddle Arena. Game time is 7 p.m.
– Follow sports editor Jeff Nations on Twitter @Jeff_NationsBG or visit bgdailynews.com.