QUICK HITTER STORY/McHenry propels WKU past UTEP, 78-71, as Hilltoppers earn first NCAA Tournament berth in 11 years


HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — Western Kentucky has played its way into the NCAA Tournament.

The Hilltoppers, who closed the regular season with four consecutive defeats, showed an entirely different side over the last three days at the Propst Arena.

After lopsided victories over New Mexico State and longtime rival Middle Tennessee State, first-year WKU coach Steve Lutz and the Tops returned to the Conference USA championship game and finally delivered.

Junior WKU point guard Don McHenry scored 25 points and added five rebounds and four steals, leading the Hilltoppers to a gritty, 78-71 victory over the University of Texas-El Paso before a crowd of 4,541 on Saturday night.

“Best day of my life, man,” McHenry said with a wide smile when it was over.

Western Kentucky earned its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2013, when the Hilltoppers will still playing in the Sun Belt Conference.

Western Kentucky improved to 22-11 on the season and will learn of its first-round opponent in the NCAA Tournament, and the logistics of that game, on Sunday evening. WKU has invited fans to watch the NCAA Selection Show with the team on the E.A. Diddle Arena floor. The doors will open at 4 p.m., Sunday.

WKU bolted out of the gate and led 17-4 before the Miners finally started getting their bearings. UTEP battled all the way back to grab a 30-29 lead with about three minutes left in the first half. But McHenry beat the UTEP defense for a three-point play with 1:50 left in the first half, putting WKU in front 36-33. And the Hilltoppers took a 40-36 lead into the locker room at halftime.

“At the end of the day, I think our defense changed the game’s momentum,” Lutz said. “In the second half, we had five or six stops in a row.”

UTEP got back in the game with some deft 3-point shooting. The Miners’ Zid Powell hit 4-of-7 shots from 3-point range while leading his team with 21 points.

WKU’s Brandon Newman, a transfer from Purdue University, finished the game with 15 points, while teammate Khristian Lander added 11 points. Athletic WKU forward Babacar Faye had nine points and a game-high 10 rebounds, adding three steals and three blocked shots.

Only four players returned to WKU from Rick Stansbury’s final Hilltoppers squad — Lander, forward Tyrone Marshall, former UK swingman Dontaie Allen and backup center Fallou Diagne — so Lutz and his coaching staff had to build a roster on the run after he was hired a little more than one year ago. The NCAA Transfer Portal and NIL guidelines might have helped, but nothing was guaranteed.

“These guys took a chance on me, they took a chance on Western Kentucky,” Lutz said. “They’ve fulfilled their promise.”

Allen was injured earlier in the week in the Conference USA Tournament and was dressed for the game but did not play.

I’ll have a complete story on WKU’s impressive performance and return to the NCAA Tournament later this morning. And I’ll be at Diddle for the NCAA Selection Show. Thanks for reading jimmashek.com