W. Kentucky-Saint Mary's (Cal) Preview (Dec 14, 2016)

BY AP • December 13, 2016

Saint Mary's and Western Kentucky are both feeling pretty good about themselves heading into their matchup on the Gaels' home court Wednesday night.

The 20th-ranked Gaels (7-1) bounced back from their first defeat of the season -- a 65-51 home loss to Texas-Arlington last Thursday -- with a strong performance in an 84-53 victory over UC-Irvine on Sunday.

"We played better tonight," Gaels coach Randy Bennett said after the game. "That was the best we've played in a while."

Saint Mary's hit 56 percent of its field-goal attempts, improving its season shooting percentage to 50.9 percent, ninth best in the country. The Gaels also made 10 of 17 3-point attempts, putting them at 40.2 percent for the season.

Immediately after that strong performance, Bennett had a quick assessment of Western Kentucky.

"They beat Indiana State today," he said, obviously impressed.

Indeed, the Hilltoppers (4-5) recorded an admirable 77-59 road win on Sunday over an Indiana State team that had defeated 15th-ranked Butler four days earlier on the same court.

"Tonight was our best game, by far -- a complete game, as a team," first-year Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury said.

The Hilltoppers hit 53.2 percent of their shots, a marked improvement for a team that was hitting just 40.1 percent coming into the game.

"This was the most efficient we've been offensively," Stansbury said. "Tonight was our best effort of offensive toughness. That's why we shot 53 percent."

Just as significant was Western Kentucky's defensive effort, limiting the Sycamores to 37.9 percent shooting.

"We took their best two players and basically took them out of the game," Stansbury said.

Brenton Scott, Indiana State's top scorer, managed 17 points but was just 6 of 19 from the field, including 0 of 7 from long range. Matt Van Scyoc, the Sycamores' No. 2 scorer, had just one point and missed all three of his field-goal attempts after scoring 23 points against Butler.

It was Western Kentucky's first road win since Feb. 26 against Middle Tennessee.

"I'm proud of our guys," said Stanbury, a former coach at Mississippi State. "We've been fighting. Several games we would get down in the second half and hit a wall."

Western Kentucky had an 11-point lead late in the first half that Indiana State whittled down to one point early in the second half. But, instead of hitting a wall, the Hilltoppers dominated the final eight minutes to win going away.

Pancake Thomas scored 22 points for the Hilltoppers while the team's leading scorer, Que Johnson, added 15 points, and Justin Johnson collected 14 points and 10 rebounds.

That ended the Hilltoppers' four-game losing streak, which included a 39-point loss to Washington and a 19-point loss to Eastern Kentucky. The question is whether the win over Indiana State was a fluke or an indication that Western Kentucky has improved significantly.

The competition only gets stiffer as Saint Mary's is the first Top 25 team the Hilltoppers will face this season.

The Gaels got back on track against Irvine after their misstep against Texas-Arlington.

"I wasn't that concerned," Bennett said of the loss. "I knew we had a stinker."

The Gaels dropped eight spots in the rankings as a result of the loss, but did not drop completely out of the Top 25.

Center Jock Landale still leads the Gaels at 18.4 points per game, although he has not exceeded 15 points in any of his last three games.



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