HITTING THEIR STRIDE/Hilltoppers subdue New Mexico State, 72-58, extend winning streak to five games


The Western Kentucky University men’s basketball team is looking for its first berth in the NCAA Tournament in 11 long years.

The Hilltoppers took another step in pursuit of that elusive goal on Saturday afternoon, and it was a decisive one.

Western Kentucky honored three of its seniors — Dontaie Allen, Brandon Newman and Rodney Howard — before taking the floor against New Mexico State University, and after a largely sluggish first half, the Hilltoppers found a winning formula against the Aggies.

Defend. Rebound. Make the opponent uncomfortable.

Check, check, and check, please. The Tops pulled away from New Mexico State throughout the second half, while pulling to within one victory of a 20-win season. First-year WKU coach Steve Lutz has his squad on the right track, which was certainly evident in Saturday’s steady 72-58 victory over the Aggies before a crowd of 5,102 at E.A. Diddle Arena.

It was the Hilltoppers’ fifth consecutive victory.

“We’ve got the utmost confidence, right now, at the right time,” Newman said.

Western Kentucky improved to 19-7 overall and 8-4 in Conference USA play. The Hilltoppers will take a short break before returning to the practice floor and next Saturday’s quick road trip to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to face traditional rival Middle Tennessee State University at the Murphy Center. And they’re thrilled about turning the tables on New Mexico State, which overcame a 23-point deficit to stun the Tops, 72-70, on January 18 in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

“The rebounding was the key to the game,” Lutz said.

New Mexico State (11-15 overall, 5-6 in Conference USA) led for the bulk of the first half, but WKU junior point guard Don McHenry fueled a late run to tie the game at 33 heading into halftime. McHenry came up with a critical steal with 25 seconds left in the half, and he tied it up by grabbing a loose ball and scoring from the baseline before the horn sounded.

The Hilltoppers returned for the second half and imposed their will on the visitors from New Mexico. They’ve got one home game remaining, against Conference USA co-leader Louisiana Tech on February 28, but their chances of breaking the NCAA Tournament drought will be decided next month in the C-USA Tournament. to begin March 12 at the 10,000-seat Propst Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

After making the long journey to Frisco, Texas, for the C-USA Tournament in recent years, the Hilltoppers are looking forward to the chance of competing for an NCAA Tournament berth a mere three-hour drive from the WKU campus.

“If you don’t win the league tournament,” WKU’s Steve Lutz said, “you’re not going to the NCAA Tournament.”

Lutz has just four holdovers from former coach Rick Stansbury’s final WKU squad, and two of the seniors honored before Saturday’s game are high-profile additions from the NCAA Transfer Portal. Rodney Howard is a former Georgia Tech center, while Newman previously played at Purdue, where Lutz worked for four years (2017-21) as an assistant coach.

“I can’t thank these guys enough,” Lutz said. “They took a little bit of a leap of faith, to play their final year here …”

There have been setbacks, to be sure, including injuries to guard Jalen Jackson — who was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon on December 30 — as well as guard Khristian Lander’s six-game absence while in the concussion protocol. Lander is back on the court, for the stretch run, and Lutz has developed some depth with two freshmen — swingman Teagan Moore, who led the Tops with 12 points on Saturday, and backup point guard Jack Edelen, a preferred walk-on from Louisville’s Male High School.

Moore has been more assertive on the offensive end of the floor in the last two weeks or so, while Edelen made a big play in securing a loose ball and getting it to WKU teammate Enuch Kalambay for a transition basket that extended the Tops’ lead to 46-40 in the second half.

Edelen has become an effective distributor, and Kalambay gives the Hilltoppers quickness and energy off the bench. Babacar Faye is the Tops’ most athletic player under the basket, and he had 11 points on Saturday, while Don McHenry added 10. Dontaie Allen, the former UK swingman, and Brandon Newman each had nine points.

New Mexico State’s Femi Odukale, a 6-foot-6 transfer from Seton Hall, led the Aggies with 18 points. Former Hilltoppers point guard Jordan Rawls, who transferred to NMSU after graduating from Western Kentucky, finished the game with six points and three assists.

Developing depth has given the Tops a boost when they really need it.

“If you can play eight, nine, 10 or 11 guys, you’re going to have a chance to be successful in March,” WKU’s Steve Lutz said. “I’m very mindful of the wear and tear on their bodies.”

That seems to be music to Brandon Newman’s ears.

“We’re a fast-paced team,” Newman said. “We want to be aggressive on defense, force turnovers and be aggressive on offense.”

The Hilltoppers will tangle with MTSU (11-15, 5-6 in Conference USA) on Saturday in Murfreesboro. Tip-off will be at 6:30 p.m.