Another two matchups of the league’s top teams, another two entertaining basketball games. At CR, we have repeatedly been impressed at the quality of play from any combination of WKU, Marshall, UAB, La Tech, and UNT. Any of those teams could have been crowned champions and it would have been deserved. As it is, it will be WKU and North Texas at 8pm for the right to enter the pandemic tournament in Indianapolis.
Charles Bassey and the stacked roster at WKU vs Javion Hamlet and the chip-on-shoulder crew of North Texas will meet for the first time this season. The matchup is filled with intriguing plot lines that trace back to last season and beyond. WKU eliminated Zach Simmons and NT two seasons ago, after another 20 win season but one that was filled with injuries late for the Mean Green. Last year Hamlet and company beat WKU in OT after Tavion Hollingsworth missed a couple of late free throws that would have otherwise sealed things for the Tops in Denton. When the pandemic forced the cancellation of the conference tournament, the juicy rematch between these squads was one of the many things we missed out on.
This time Charles Bassey is not injured (well, not so injured that he will be out) and while NT is missing a couple of guys from that team that won the regular season, this three-seeded squad has played some really nice basketball against ODU and Tech.
WKU waltzed by UTSA and then outlasted a grimy UAB. The top seed in the east division against the third seed from a strong west side (NT was 2nd an had a chance to get the top seed but for two final-weekend losses to that UAB team that WKU dispatched).
(1E) WKU 64 (2W) UAB 60
Charles Bassey was a game-time decision and that decision was to play him. It worked out well, as he dominated with 22 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 blocks in 35 minutes. He showed touch around the rim, owned the paint defensively, and stepped out for some jumpers that showed his versatility. He is so good that it is sometimes hard to appreciate. Everyone comes in with a plan to slow him but only ODU was able to do so effectively — and that was in the regular season.
UAB for their part, did their best to corral him as best they could but the game plan was always going to be about slowing the “others”. The Tops’ Josh Anderson only had 3 on 1 of 3 shooting and five rebounds in 35 minutes. He is best flying in the open court and did not have many opportunities. Freshman Dayvion McKnight added a big 13 points including 9 of those in the first half. WKU was down 34-31 in the first and those big buckets from McKnight helped keep things manageable.
The first half was about feeling each other out. Rick Stansbury got Bassey some looks and WKU sort of felt their way through the UAB defense’s mix of zone and man.
For UAB, Michael Ertel continued his run from the day before, scoring 11 in the first half on 3 of 4 from distance. The balanced attack from the Blazers had four of five of the starters in double-figures. The Blazers pushed the lead to five very early on Kassim Nicholson’s bucket to start the half before WKU had a 7-0 run that saw McKnight and Bassey get a couple of layups and Hollingsworth hit a three. From then on, WKU maintained things before stretching the lead to as many as nine with 3:42 left.
UAB got seven straight (Jackson 3, Lovan and Ertel) to bring the lead down to 62-60. Then a steal by Ertel set up the final stretch. Ertel missed a tough three at :39– credit WKU’s defense for pushing the intended set into something like a scramble mode. Ertel did not want to shoot that shot, but had to. After that, WKU got a couple of free throws from McKnight and that was that, after a missed three from Quan Jackson.
For the game WKU shot 47% to WKU’s 39%. The biggest difference was from three, where WKU was +15 points. Luke Frampton was 3 of 6, Bassey was 2 of 4.
(3W) UNT 54 (1W) La Tech 48
A quick glance at this scoreline and you would think there was bad basketball on display. You would be wrong. While the shots were not falling — especially from three where the teams combined for 6 of 34 from distance — there was quality defense on display. Every possession was a grind, as every pass, post, screen, and cut was fought over. Tech and NT were at the top of the various defensive efficiency statistics all season long. If you watched these programs in the regular season you regularly saw this kind of performance.
These two teams split in the regular season and the Tech win in Denton saw Lofton and Crawford get huge buckets. This time, Lofton struggled for long stretches, as he labored to move as well as he has and did not dominate his matchup even as he managed 10 points. Crawford was the same, only scoring 9 points (he had eight in a clutch stretch yesterday) as he did not find the space he needed when attacking the paint. NT collapsed the lanes and the kick out passes were not finding knock down shooters.
Cobe Williams and Andrew Gordon were back but did not do much. Williams broke his hand and is an integral part of the Tech attack, breaking down defenses because he is so quick. Without that dynamism, NT was able to stay in front and force Tech’s shooters to try and beat them.
Gordon was not as dynamic in part because he could not get the space he needed as well. Grant McCasland said in the post game that part of the plan was to defend as a team (not surprising) and the emphasis was on digging, helping, and crowding the space for Tech, especially on Lofton.
In some ways, it was just not Tech’s week. Williams’ injury, and a general funk seemed to be around this squad. Yesterday’s technical foul on Lofton (who fouled out after a poor game by his standards) was emblematic of the frustration. Case in point: down 7 with 2:10 to go, Tech runs their Horns set wherein Lofton runs the show from the high post. He found the cutting Amorie Archibald and the layup was awkward and a miss. That is a play Tech has run all season and gotten big buckets from.
The following possession (which seemed like forever because of NT’s penchant for dribbling out 25 seconds from the clock), Lofton grabbed the rebound and sprinted the floor. The lob attempt from Crawford to … one of Pemberton or Lofton went to … both and it was missed as they crashed into each other. Four points given away in a seven point game with under two minutes to play.
Meanwhile, North Texas played with the kind of confidence and grit that was not on display vs UAB last weekend. CR held the position that NT was good, and that given the totality of the seasons’ performance the loss to UAB looked more uncharacteristic and emblematic of a little bit of a rut rather than a wholesale representation of the quality of the team. 1 The loss and the lessons learned (shooting with confidence instead of hesitation, playing through adversity, etc) have been on display against two very good opponents 2 in ODU and Tech.
Despite only shooting 3 of 17 from distance, NT shot the ball when they had open looks from three. When they did drop — mostly in the case of Mardez McBride — those buckets were devastating. Take the final three made, McBride’s three at the 4:08 mark that pushed the lead to five. It came off a tough bucket by Crawford who literally scored through Thomas Bell. McBride’s three provided some more cushion and NT got two big stops (Lofton missed a layup, Bell forced an ugly shot from Crawford) after a Hamlet turnover.
After that the Mean Green held on as Tech tried a comeback. Pemberton had a couple of free throws, a big three, and barely missed another three in the final minute. Kalob Ledoux had a three after a held ball/turnover on the inbounds that would have cut the lead to only one but it missed badly. He tried to draw a foul instead of trying to score and it showed. 3
Hamlet finished with 18, including 14 in the second half. In both games against higher seeds he has come up big late, in the important moments. He is putting on a show and will need to do more of the same as NT will face the most talented team in the league in the title game.
Similarly, the Tech squad is much better than what they showed these last two days ↩
Middle is not good and that was something like a warm up /confidence booster ↩
Ledoux underperformed pretty much all season and that was a big factor. He had a couple of three attempts missed in the same possession around the 9-minute mark that were huge. Tech was down three after clawing back from being down 8 points. ↩