WKU puts Sun Belt streak on the line in opener vs. FIU

Western Kentucky puts a pretty impressive streak on the line tonight. Actually, they’ll have to win tonight against Florida International and Sunday night against UALR to keep it alive.

Going into tonight’s 8:30 p.m. game against Florida International, Western Kentucky has advanced to the semifinals of the Sun Belt Tournament seven consecutive years.

Western Kentucky and Florida International split their regular season meetings. FIU pulled away in the second half to win the first game in Bowling Green, Ky., in one of the final games for former Coach Ken McDonald. Ray Harper was the coach when the Hilltoppers returned the favor with a victory in Miami.

Western Kentucky has lost 14 of their past 17 games away from home. But they did get a big win at FIU in an ugly game. WKU shot 27.6 percent while FIU shot 32 percent and made 1 of 12 three-pointers. But WKU held a five rebound advantage and forced 20 FIU turnovers to earn the 61-51 victory.

WKU also finished the season strong with home victories over Arkansas State and top seed Middle Tennessee.

Florida International has talent. They only won five games in Sun Belt play but landed three of the 15 players on the all-conference team in Phil Taylor, Jeremy Allen and DeJuan Wright. And on Saturday night against South Alabama, Coach Isiah Thomas made a tactical change. He went with a four-guard lineup most of the way, utilizing Wright, Taylor, Allen and Deric Hall. Instead of handling the ball all the time, Taylor played off it, making him a different type of threat to score. And Hall responded with the ball, posting 9 assists and 0 turnovers.

Western Kentucky needs to shoot the ball well. The Tops are 1-9 when shooting less than 40 percent. But that’s only happened in 3 of the 13 games since Harper replaced McDonald. WKU is also 3-11 when attempting fewer free throws than its opponent and 4-13 when getting outrebounded.

One advantage the winner of tonight’s game will have is familiarity with Summit Arena, where they’ll meet UALR on Sunday night. In contrast, UALR players won’t get their first look at Summit Arena until they bus from Little Rock Sunday evening.