QUICK HITTER STORY/McHenry, Hilltoppers turn back Liberty University, 70-68, for eighth consecutive victory


Western Kentucky University hasn’t been to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament since 2013, when former coach Ray Harper’s Hilltoppers won four games in as many days at the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, squeezing into the field of 68 teams.

Rick Stansbury came and went, failing to get the Hilltoppers to the promised land in his seven seasons at WKU, including last year’s disaster, when the Tops finished one game over .500 before Stansbury stepped aside.

That opened the door for Steve Lutz, Western Kentucky’s first-year coach who twice took Texas A&M-Corpus Christi to the NCAA Tournament, and Lutz has assembled a promising team capable of making a run toward the postseason, based on the early returns.

Western Kentucky battled through some late offensive struggles to slip past Liberty University, 70-68, in its Conference USA opener on Saturday evening. A paid crowd of 5,067 was on hand to watch the Hilltoppers remain unbeaten in eight home games at WKU’s E.A. Diddle Arena, and Lutz, his staff and his players participated in a “Diddle Lap” immediately afterward, greeting courtside fans who turned out for the contest.

The Hilltoppers (12-3 overall) will hit the road for a road game against another Conference USA newcomer, Sam Houston State, on Wednesday night in Huntsville, Texas, before returning to Diddle to square off with Jacksonville State (Alabama) on Saturday evening.

Liberty University fell to 11-5 overall with the defeat. There were 14 lead changes and seven ties, with the Hilltoppers holding on, defensively, in the final seconds.

“From Day One, I’ve said our goal is to win the conference, win the conference tournament, and go to the NCAA Tournament,” Lutz said in the postgame press conference. “Our goals haven’t changed.”

Don McHenry, the Tops’ junior point guard from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, led a balanced WKU scoring attack with 18 points. Dontaie Allen, a celebrated transfer from the University of Kentucky, was a major contributor off the bench, finishing with 13 points and four rebounds in 23 minutes, six seconds on the floor.

Senior guard Brandon Newman, a transfer from Purdue University — where Lutz had been an assistant coach, before moving on to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi — and Rodney Howard, formerly of Georgia Tech, also had 11 points each for the Hilltoppers.

Zach Cleveland, a 6-foot-7, 215-pound sophomore, led Liberty with 23 points and seven rebounds, and teammate Kyle Rode added 15 points and eight rebounds. The Flames are a prolific 3-point shooting squad, but they shot only 34.3 percent from the field, including an 8-for-35 showing (22.9 percent) from 3-point range.

The Hilltoppers led by as many as 13 points, with 4:42 left in the game, but they struggled at the free-throw line down the stretch, and had some anxious moments when it was a one-possession game in the final minute.

Ultimately, though, they survived.

“At the end of the day,” Lutz said, “they (the Tops) play for the name on the front of the jersey, not on the back of the jersey.”

WKU shot 46.3 percent from the field, while going 7 of 18 from 3-point land (38.9 percent). At the line, however, the Tops hit just 13 of 21 free throws, or 61.9 percent.

“We didn’t want it to come down to that,” WKU guard Don McHenry said, “but if it does …”

Dontaie Allen was pleased with the victory but tried to keep it in perspective.

“At the end of the day, our job is not finished,” Allen said.

My job, for now, is finished. I’ll have a complete story on the Hilltoppers’ big win before the NFL kicks off at noon Sunday. Thanks for reading jimmashek.com