DON’s DOMAIN/McHenry guides Hilltoppers past dogged UTEP squad, 90-80


He stands 6-foot-2 and tips the scales, they say, at about 160 pounds.

He keeps his dreads in check, and to some extent, his emotions, too.

He’s in his first season with the Western Kentucky University men’s basketball team, but you might say he’s made a huge impact in his first three months of the Hilltoppers’ 2023-24 season.

Milwaukee’s Don McHenry is one of the leading contenders for Conference USA’s Player of the Year honors, and that was on display in the Hilltoppers’ nationally televised game against the University of Texas-El Paso on Thursday evening.

When push came to shove, and when shove evolved into crunch time, McHenry was at his best. The WKU junior point guard struck for a game-high 25 points and simply willed the Hilltoppers past UTEP, 90-80, before a modest crowd of 3,305 at E.A. Diddle Arena. The Tops earned their fourth consecutive victory, after a successful two-game road swing, while improving to 18-7 overall and 7-4 in Conference USA play.

Western Kentucky is just a half-game behind Louisiana Tech (17-8, 7-3) and Sam Houston State (14-11, 7-3) in the C-USA standings, and no one has to tell first-year WKU coach Steve Lutz what that means in the final two weeks of the regular season.

“I don’t think the winner is going to have three losses,” Lutz said.

The Tops will play host to New Mexico State (11-14, 5-5) on Saturday afternoon, and after the short trip to face longtime rival Middle Tennessee State (10-15, 4-6) next weekend, they’ll play host to Louisiana Tech in their final home regular-season game on February 28.

McHenry took control in the final six minutes of Thursday’s game, scoring eight points in a span of one minute, 51 seconds to give the Hilltoppers a double-digit lead when they needed it most.

Senior WKU guard Khristian Lander returned to the floor after missing six games in the concussion protocol, and he made a valuable contribution to the Tops’ winning effort. But McHenry sensed his team needed him to take charge against the Miners, and that’s exactly what he did.

“I thought I was able to make some things happen,” McHenry said in the postgame press conference.

He used his quick first step, and determined drives to the basket, to give the Hilltoppers some breathing room against a UTEP squad with multiple 3-point shooting threats. McHenry hit 11 of 18 shots, including a 2-for-4 showing from 3-point range, to finish the game with 25 points, a game-high five assists and five rebounds, along with one of the Tops’ six blocked shots.

“(McHenry) hit that little step-back 3 and he got going downhill, got to the basket and got the runner a couple times,” Lutz said with a smile. “… But yeah, Don McHenry was fantastic tonight. He’s a good basketball player. There’s a lot of good basketball players in this league, but he’s certainly is one of the ones at the top.”

The Hilltoppers can see it in his body language, as Lutz acknowledged.

“Deep down inside,” he said, “when things go crazy, (McHenry) knows how to go to the basket.”

The Hilltoppers put four players in double figures, and freshman forward Teagan Moore finished with a career-high 16 points, while defensive dynamo Babacar Faye and steady senior Brandon Newman each added 10. Senior guard Tae Hardy led the Miners with 19 points, but they could only shoot 28 percent from 3-point range, compared to the Tops’ 35 percent mark.

The Tops avenged last month’s 93-87 loss to the Miners in El Paso, using their defensive prowess to ignite quick trips and quick decisions to the other end of the floor.

“it was on the defensive end, for sure,” McHenry said. “Guarding the ball and getting through screens and just communicating.”

Which is what Lutz wants to hear as the Hilltoppers move closer to the Conference USA Tournament, which begins March 12 at Propst Arena in Huntsville, Alabama, a mere three-hour drive from the WKU campus. In recent years, the Tops would have to travel all the way to Dallas-Fort Worth to compete in the C-USA Tournament.

Establishing a winning culture was one of Steve Lutz’ first priorities after arriving in Bowling Green about 11 months ago. He’s had to mix and match with four holdovers from former WKU coach Rick Stansbury’s 2022-23 squad, along with transfers such as Don McHenry, Babacar Faye and Brandon Newman, and first-year freshmen like Teagan Moore, who is becoming more assertive offensively all the time.

Lutz was encouraged by Khristian Lander’s return from a concussion sustained in the Tops’ 72-70 loss to New Mexico State on January 18 in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Lander struggled at the outset with his shooting touch, but he finished with seven points in 22-plus minutes on the floor.

“Khristian was a little rusty, of course, but I didn’t see any real missteps,” Lutz said. “He settled into the game, hit a big 3-pointer for us.”

Faye was particularly productive for the Tops, scoring 10 points while grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds in just 20-plus minutes on the floor. WKU scored 46 points in the paint and led for all but four minutes and change in Thursday’s game.

“Babacar played great tonight,” Lutz said. “… If you don’t match (UTEP’s) toughness, you’re going to lose … We’ve got a lot of improvements we can still make. My gut doesn’t tell me we were the ‘tougher’ team tonight. We’ve got to do better than that.”

The Hilltoppers seem to be getting the message.