It was a different kind of weekend for the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, but a productive one nonetheless.
Out of an abundance of caution, fifth-year head coach Rick Stansbury, running a fever late in the week, did not make the ‘100 Miles of Hate’ trip to Murfreesboro, Tenn., where WKU swept arch-rival Middle Tennessee on Saturday and Sunday.
The Hilltoppers have now won four rivalry games in succession — improving to 13-4 overall and 6-2 in Conference USA.
“Ironically, going into these last few weeks, coach Stansbury has really been on our team about being more player-driven,” said Western associate head coach Phil Cunningham, who served as interim head coach Saturday and Sunday.
“We have a mask mandate going on so you can’t communicate as much from the bench. Coach has been harping on these guys being player-driven. We really saw it for the first time at Marshall (Jan.17), and it’s just carried over.”
In Saturday’s 82-67 conquest of the Blue Raiders, the Hilltoppers placed five players in the double-figure scoring column, led by 6-11 junior All-American candidate Charles Bassey, who produced 16 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks.
But Bassey had help, with Carson Williams (15 points, eight rebounds), Taveion Hollingsworth (15 points), Luke Frampton (14 points), and Jordan Rawls (10 points) making significant contributions.
Western shot 51% from the field, made 10-of-20 shots from beyond the arc, and drilled 24-of-29 free throws (83%).
“I think this is just us coming together,” said Frampton, a 6-5 junior transfer from Davidson. “This has been coming. We’ve been working since August. It’s just being player-driven. That’s the biggest thing, your players leading the team.”
Bassey, meanwhile, played a more prominent role in Sunday’s 68-52 win over MTSU — pouring in 23 points, grabbing 14 rebounds, and blocking five shots. On Monday, he was accorded the C-USA Player of the Week honor for the sixth time this season.
The Toppers’ defense limited the Blue Raiders to 29% shooting, including 22% from 3-point range (5-of-23).
“That wasn’t the prettiest win, but it was a win,” Cunningham said. “There back-to-backs are a mental test and a physical test. We walked out of here 19 hours ago for an early tip today as we really challenged the guys. ‘Let’s be the most energetic team. Let’s break their will …’ We kind of broke their will down the stretch to finish them off.”
WKU was just 3-of-15 from 3-point range but found other ways to be effective.
“We’ve got a great all-around team,” Rawls said. “Some nights the 3s won’t be falling, but we have plenty of other guys who can get inside, draw fouls, and finish at the rim.”
The unranked Hilltoppers are scheduled to return to action at 7 p.m. on Friday in E.A. Diddle Arena for a C-USA battle with Old Dominion, which did not play this past weekend due to COVID issues.
WKU’s 13-4 start is its best through 17 games since the 2001-02 season.