HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — One game at a time: That’s Head Coach Ken McDonald’s method of operation to get the Toppers through four games in four days and into the NCAA Tournament.
Last night, Western handed New Orleans its final Division I loss, sending the Privateers to the NCAA’s Division III with an 83-58 sendoff.
“It’s very difficult for our kids,” UNO Head Coach Joe Pasternack said. “We’ve had a very difficult year, finding out about this in the very middle of the season. That’s probably the biggest thing that they’ve had to endure all year long — uncertainty — and it’s been very difficult for them, not knowing where there future stands. This being their final game here — they came here to the University of New Orleans and wanted to make this their home, these freshman, for four years, and they can’t.”
Next up for Western (20-12) is Arkansas State (17-13), a team the Toppers beat both at home, 79-68, and on the road, 78-76, in overtime already this season. Tipoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.
Some storylines from tonight’s game:
- While Western was working a 20-point lead over New Orleans last night and giving the bench some extended playing time, Arkansas State was locked in a battle to the wire with Arkansas-Little Rock. In fact, that one went past the wire and into overtime, when the Red Wolves pulled away to win, 89-82. Junior forward Sergio Kerusch didn’t know who Western would play during his postgame press conference, but Kerusch said the Toppers would “roll with the punches” and deal with their next task. “We’ve been through this before, and we know how it goes,” Kerusch said. “The new guys are coming on strong, and it’s just going to be a game of hearts. The team that wants it the most — I think — will win the whole thing.”
- The Toppers’ second game of the Sun Belt tournament moves to Summit Arena, the larger of the two venues that host this year’s tournament. Although Summit isn’t impressive by any means, there may not be a game more highly attended at the entire tournament than a Western-Arkansas State matchup. The Red Wolves, who travel from Jonesboro, Ark., brought a good crowd in for UALR last night, and Convention Center Court was a sea of red throughout the Toppers’ first-round game. “We know we can play with Western Kentucky,” said ASU Head Coach John Brady. “We just have to figure out how to pull out the win tomorrow night.”
- In a conversation with Pasternack earlier this week, the UNO coach harped on Western’s talent over and over. But the Toppers won’t present that same intimidation factor toward Arkansas State, which features the league’s Freshman of the Year in guard Brandon Reed. Another freshman guard, Rashad Allison, went for a career-high 20 points against the Trojans on Saturday night. So the Red Wolves have talent, even if they lean on youth.
- Should Western beat Arkansas State, it would mean defeating a team three times in a single season — a tough task in any rank of college basketball. If there’s any evidence pointing to a Red Wolves upset win tonight, it’s that.
The winner of Western-Arkansas State advances to take on the winner of Troy-South Alabama at 6 p.m. Monday in Summit Arena.
For an updated view of the men’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament bracket, click here.