TOPS TAKE THE TITLE/Western Kentucky stymies UTEP, 78-71, to win C-USA Tournament, gain first NCAA berth since 2013


HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — They had that look about them.

On the floor, in the huddle. Under the basket. Coming out of the locker room.

This Western Kentucky men’s basketball team was going places. Where, the Hilltoppers will find out Sunday evening. How, through sheer grit and plenty of moxie. Why, well, let WKU swingman Brandon Newman explain.

“We started, back in the summer, back in June, and to just see the progression,” Newman said after the Hilltoppers stopped the University of Texas-El Paso, 78-71, in the Conference USA Tournament championship game on Saturday night. “Everybody has put their work in. Individually, and as a team … I’m really proud of these guys.

“To blindly trust people — you know, we’re all pretty much strangers — trying to figure out this basketball thing.”

This basketball thing has long been a big deal at WKU. And the Hilltoppers haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2013. Since joining Conference USA, they’d gone 0-for-3 in the C-USA Tournament championship game.

That narrative is pretty much over.

First-year WKU coach Steve Lutz twice took Texas A&M-Corpus Christi to the NCAA Tournament, winning a First Four game in his second and final season with the Islanders. WKU athletics director Todd Stewart and university president Tim Caboni were looking for a driven leader, a man who could bring the Hilltoppers’ winning tradition back to life.

Lutz has made it happen.

“I’m obviously extremely proud of these guys,” Lutz said. “They battled through a lot of adversity toward the end of the season … And when it was time to tune out all the outside noises and to band together and play for one another, they did it.

“That’s hard to do in today’s age with social media and people always coming at you from a lot of different angles. To me, that just shows the character of these young men.”

Western Kentucky improved to 22-11 overall, after running the table in three days at Propst Arena. The four-game losing streak, to close regular-season play? History. The injuries, the setbacks on the road, against Conference USA opponents? Mere footnotes.

The Hilltoppers are returning to the NCAA Tournament. UTEP finishes its season at 18-16.

“Congrats to Western Kentucky. They’re obviously a good champion to represent our conference,” UTEP coach Joe Golding said.

WKU guard Don McHenry, a Milwaukee native who joined the Tops from the JUCO ranks, was named the tournament MVP. McHenry played more than 35 minutes and did it all for WKU. The slender 6-foot-2 junior scored a game-high 25 points, hitting nine of 16 shots from the field, while adding five rebounds and four steals.

“Best day of my life,” McHenry said. “It’s the best day of my life, man.”

Newman, the transfer from Purdue University, has played in the NCAA Tournament before. The 6-foot-5 WKU senior finished with 15 points, while athletic forward Babacar Faye was all over the court for the Tops. Faye torched the Miners for nine points, a game-high 10 rebounds, three steals and three of the Hilltoppers’ six blocked shots.

Three young men who came in after Rick Stansbury’s departure, and Steve Lutz’s first few weeks on the job at WKU.

“I always try to build towards March and the way we play during the season and the way we play a lot of different people,” Lutz said. “We manage the minutes and all those sorts of things, I believe that helps you when it comes to tournament time.

“But at the end of the day, you’ve got to have good people in the locker room that care about winning and these guys obviously care about WKU and getting the NCAA Tournament.”

That’s been the buzz, the goal, from the outset. Stansbury talked about it, and never delivered. Lutz and his coaching staff put the Hilltoppers together pretty much on the fly, and he’s brought a renewed enthusiasm to the program. WKU will play host to a watch party at E.A. Diddle Arena, with the doors opening at 4 p.m. on Sunday, to learn of its NCAA Tournament opponent and destination.

You get the idea that the Hilltoppers are ready to embrace the challenge.

“Right now, we’re playing some of our best basketball,” McHenry said.

The Tops arrived in Huntsville on Tuesday intent on making this a defining moment of the season. They crushed New Mexico State, 89-69, in Thursday’s quarterfinals before burying traditional rival Middle Tennessee State — C-USA, Sun Belt, Ohio Valley Conference, the beginning of time — to the tune of 85-54. They were clearly ready to take the floor with a championship on the line, bolting to a 17-3 lead in the game’s opening minutes.

The Miners recovered, and there were six lead changes in the game. WKU took a 40-36 lead into the locker room at halftime, but UTEP grabbed a 51-44 lead with about 12 minutes left in the game.

It still seemed like the Hilltoppers were the more confident team.

McHenry drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing, trimming the deficit to four points, and later scored on a drive to the basket that made it 53-all. WKU’s Khristian Lander then scored in transition and the Hilltoppers clearly had the momentum, forcing a UTEP timeout when Rodney Howard, the senior transfer from Georgia Tech, dropped a resounding dunk on the Miners for a 58-53 lead with 9:04 left.

That was pretty much that.

WKU was going back to the NCAA Tournament.

Steve Lutz’s strategy was on point.

“The message was not to turn the ball over, and play better defense in the second half,” Lutz said. “For whatever reason, we missed a couple shots, and let it affect our defensive intensity. To our credit, we were able to flip that somewhere around the 12-minute mark. I thought we played very good defense the rest of the way.

“If we want to go far, in the NCAA Tournament, we’re going to have to play defensively like we have for the last three days.”

It will be the 24th NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. And a defining moment the Hilltopper faithful have been waiting for, for a long time.