CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Charlotte coach Ron Sanchez tried to temper expectations early this season.
“This is a journey. This is not gonna happen right away. There’s no magic dust,” said Sanchez after his team’s season-opening loss to Chattanooga. “It’s not pretty, it’s not sexy, it’s not pie-in-the-sky. It’s just simple hard work.”
Sanchez’ words proved prophetic in his team’s Conference USA opener.
Western Kentucky took advantage of a Charlotte team limited by injuries and depth concerns, doubling a nine-point halftime lead and placing four scorers in double figures en route to a 68-50 victory before an announced crowd of 3,019 at Halton Arena.
“Obviously, they’re a very good team,” said Sanchez of Western Kentucky after the game. “Right now, we are definitely short-handed , but I think that we did the best we could with what we have right now.” 49er guards Malik Martin (knee) and Cooper Robb (foot) both missed the game, and no definitive timetable has been offered for their return.
Charlotte (3-9, 0-1 Conference USA) controlled the tempo early on, limiting Western Kentucky to just 7-for-17 from the floor through the first 12 minutes of the game. Only one of those buckets came from three-point range. The Hilltoppers heated up in a hurry, though, draining 7-of-10 shots (5-of-7 from three) to take a 34-25 advantage to the interval.
49er guard Jon Davis provided the virtual entirety of the Charlotte offense in the opening twenty, finding the mark on 6-of-10 attempts and tallying 18 points. No other 49er added greater than three in the half, with just three of Charlotte’s 12 tries not taken by Davis resulting in conversions.
Western Kentucky (8-6, 1-0) continued its hot play into the second half, going on a 14-4 run to begin the period and stretch the advantage to 48-29. Charlotte attempted to neutralize Western’s star freshman center Charles Bassey, and despite being relatively successful in doing so, left itself susceptible to the Hilltoppers’ perimeter game.
“To have Bassey only score 11 points and have five rebounds, I think we did a really good job,” said Sanchez “They shot the ball well from the perimeter […] We tried to take advantage on the other end, and we couldn’t score on the inside. He’s pretty big. He made it hard (to score) down there.”
What may have succeeded for Charlotte in the first half could not be replicated in the second. The opening run staggered the home side, and Charlotte never drew closer than that 19-point margin the run created.
Despite the result, Sanchez found a number of things to carry forward from the game. Whether it was limiting the damage as much as possible (“It’s not as if anybody went and scored 30. We did a pretty good job individually,” said Sanchez) or keeping in perspective the long journey he mentioned, the Niner leader stayed on message.
“It’s a joy to learn from this experience, it really is,” said Sanchez. “With this obstacle will come a tremendous learning opportunity […] You’ve got two options. You can mope, you can make excuses, or you can put your head down and try to find a solution.”
Sanchez acknowledged the challenge in playing what he called two of Conference USA’s best teams in Western Kentucky and Marshall to open the league slate, but refused to let his team hide behind the schedule.
“We’re gonna grow and be better because of this. That’s a fact. There’s no other option here,” said Sanchez. “You grow, and you improve.”
Four Hilltoppers reached double figures. Guard Jared Savage led Western Kentucky with 13 on 4-for-7 shooting (4-for-6 from distance), with Jake Ohmer tossing in 12 in 26 minutes off the bench. Bassey contributed 11, while freshman guard Dalano Banton contributed 10. The Hilltoppers shot 50 percent (24-for-48) from the field, with exactly half those makes coming on 28 tries from distance.
Davis’ 24 led Charlotte and all scorers. The senior connected on 8-of-17 shot attempts, and also led the Niners in rebounds with five. Freshman Dravon Mangum added 12. Charlotte shot just 35.4 percent (17-for-48), going 5-for-24 on shots not taken by Davis or Mangum.
Both clubs resume Conference USA play Saturday. Western Kentucky travels to Old Dominion Saturday for a 7:00 (Eastern) tilt from the Constant Center in Norfolk, Virginia. Marshall, who defeated the Monarchs, 70-67, Thursday night, will play at Charlotte Saturday afternoon. That game is scheduled for a 4:00 tip.
WESTERN KENTUCKY 68, CHARLOTTE 50
WESTERN KENTUCKY (8-6): Bassey 4-5 2-2 11, Savage 4-7 1-2 13, Anderson 2-5 0-0 4, Hollingsworth 3-8 0-0 7, Banton 4-5 2-2 10, Smith 1-3 2-4 4, Horton 0-0 1-2 1, Gambrell 1-5 0-0 3, Diagne 1-3 0-0 3, Ohmer 4-7 0-0 12. Totals 24-48 8-12 68.
CHARLOTTE (3-9): Supica 2-5 1-2 5, Mangum 4-7 1-3 12, McGill 1-4 1-2 4, Davis 8-17 4-4 24, Younger 1-6 0-0 2, Haslem 1-3 0-0 2, Blight 0-4 1-2 1, Kitoko 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 17-48 8-13 50.
Halftime — Western Kentucky 34-25. 3-Point Goals—Western Kentucky 12-28 (Bassey 1-1, Savage 4-6, Angerson 0-1, Hollingsworth 1-4, Banton 0-1, Gambrell 1-5, Diagne 1-3, Ohmer 4-7), Charlotte 8-26 (Mangum 3-5, McGill 13, Davis 4-10, Younger 0-3, Blight 0-3, Kitoko 0-2). Fouled Out — NA. Rebounds — Western Kentucky 35 (Hollingsworth 7), Charlotte 23 (Davis 5). Assists — Western Kentucky 14 (Banton 4), Charlotte 6 (Davis 3). Total Fouls — Western Kentucky 13, Charlotte 13. Technical — NA. A — 3019.
Points in the Paint —Western Kentucky 22, Charlotte 16. Points off Turnovers —Western Kentucky 15, Charlotte 5. Second-Chance Points — Charlotte 7 Western Kentucky 4. Fast Break Points — Western Kentucky 7, Charlotte 6. Bench Points–-Western Kentucky 23, Charlotte 3.