For the first time since 2003, Conference USA broke up the men’s basketball teams into two divisions.
Louisiana Tech claimed the West Division championship while Western Kentucky won the East Division championship.
Unlike football though, the two teams did not square off for the ultimate league crown. But, one could say the Bulldogs and Hilltoppers will do that when they face off in the NIT Quarterfinals. Tipoff is set for 9 p.m. Thursday at the Comerica Center in Frisco, Texas in a game that will air live on ESPN2.
How did we get here?
WKU advanced first, defeating Saint Mary’s by a final score of 69-67. Trailing by two with 40 seconds to play, the Hilltoppers got a dunk by All-American Charles Bassey, two clutch free throws by Taveion Hollingsworth and a defensive stop to complete the late comeback.
Two nights later, LA Tech advanced by upsetting No. 1 seed Ole Miss, 70-61. The ‘Dogs overcame a 10-point halftime deficit, outscoring the Rebels 43-24 in the second half to mark their largest comeback of the season.
“I was proud of our guys’ effort,” said Tech coach Eric Konkol. “Throughout all the swings in that game, from getting a 10-point lead and then falling behind by 10 at halftime, the team scratched and clawed to get back into it. We were then able to make just enough plays down the stretch to come away with a very good win.”
Kenneth Lofton, Jr. had arguably the best performance of his young career. The freshman poured in a career-high 22 points to go along with a team-high seven boards.
Thursday’s game may very well come down to the paint. Thanks to Lofton, Jr. and Co., the Bulldogs have owned the paint, outscoring their opponents in 21 of the 29 games. They are averaging 32.4 paint points on the season (scored 36 against the Rebels).
WKU counters with its center, Bassey. The Hilltoppers tend to dominate the paint on defense, ranking top 35 in the country in blocks per game (4.5) and rebounding margin (6.6).
The two teams had two epic battles in Bowling Green, Kentucky back in early January. WKU won game one, 66-64, but LA Tech bounced back the following day and got the victory, 63-58.
Round three is sure to be similar, but also with some slight differences.
“We have evolved and so have they,” Konkol said. “They are different a little in the way they are structured, but they are still centered around Charles Bassey. He is someone we have to figure out how to contain. Other things they are doing are very similar. They are a great team that is playing great basketball. It provides a great matchup on national television on Thursday.”
Yes it does.