WKU advances to NIT quarterfinals, Hilltoppers return home to recharge

Junior Charles Bassey (23) slamming home a dunk over sophomore Kyle Bowen (14) during the first round of the NIT on March 17, 2021. WKU would go on to win 69-67 over the Saint Mary’s Gaels. 

Kaden Gaylord

WKU (21-7) took on Saint Mary’s (14-10) in Comerica Center Wednesday evening to open the first round of the National Invitational Tournament. The Hilltoppers escaped with a 69-67 win after two clutch free throws from senior Taveion Hollingsworth. 

Hollingsworth led with 21 points on 7-for-15 shooting with three rebounds. Junior big man Charles Bassey ended with 19 points and 11 rebounds, making it his 17th double-double of the season, which is tied for second in the nation. Senior Josh Anderson ended with 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting. 

“I’m glad the guys got over the pain and the hurt that we were feeling all weekend,” Hollingsworth said. “I’m pretty happy for the guys that they get to see how we’re going to go on a run.” 

WKU ended the night with 17 assists and four turnovers, a stat head coach Rick Stansbury didn’t want to be unseen on the stat sheet. 

“I’m sure if you look back on the season, that’s a first for sure,” Stansbury said. “That’s a huge stat right there.” 

The Hilltoppers and Gaels traded blows early on in the first half. Around the halfway point of the first half, WKU trailed Saint Mary’s 13-10. Hollingsworth and Bassey each had four points to get the scoring going for WKU. 

Not long after the second media break, redshirt junior Luke Frampton hit his first three-pointer of the game knotting the contest up at 15 for WKU. However, the Gaels fired back with a triple courtesy of sophomore Kyle Bowen. 

Bassey gave WKU its first lead of the game 21-20 when slamming home a dunk with 8:30 left in the first half. He was then fouled on his way up to the bucket and extended WKU’s lead to 23-20 going 2-for-2 on the line.

The Hilltoppers would continue to pour on the points for the next four minutes outscoring the Gaels 12-3 to claim a 32-23 lead. At the under four minute media break, Hollingsworth had a game-high 13 points among all scorers on the floor. 

It was Josh Anderson’s turn to have some fun as he hit back-to-back three-point shots to put the Hilltoppers up by 11. The Gaels would go on to bring the deficit down to seven at the half with WKU leading 38-31. 

Anderson, Hollingsworth and Bassey combined for 29 of the 38 first half points. Both teams were perfect from the free-throw line with eight trips to the charity stripe total. The Gaels had five turnovers whereas WKU had two. 

“Offensively that court got opened up. It just gets opened up, it’s more driving lanes for people and I think it helps everybody,” Stansbury said. “Helps your point guards, helped Tay, gives Charles more room to function down there [in the paint], so it was good for everybody.”

The two teams played tit-for-tat trading buckets for the first eight minutes, with WKU keeping an arms distant lead. The big men went to work, scoring on each other on multiple possessions but Bassey’s size and ability to run the floor made a difference for WKU. Any time the Gaels pulled within two possessions, the Hilltoppers kept pushing them back.

Saint Mary’s finally pulled within one point with under three minutes left in regulation after WKU went on a two minute scoring drought. 

Saint Mary’s had two chances at the free-throw line, being down one point, to tie the game but missed both – it’s only two misses of the night – with 1:22 left in the game. 

Both teams would end up scoring that lead to the game being tied at 67. The Gael’s turned the ball over with nine seconds left before Hollingsworth drew a foul and was sent to the free-throw line, hitting both, ultimately taking the win. 

“I’m thankful that they believe in me to make plays at the end of the game and that I can do this,” Hollingsworth said of making the game-winning free-throws. 

WKU advances to the NIT quarterfinals and will play again on March 25. The Hilltoppers will faceoff against either Ole Miss or LA Tech next Thursday evening. 

“I’m down to play anybody, it doesn’t matter to me,” Frampton said. “I’ll lace up against anybody in the country, especially with these boys. I’ll take us against anybody.”

Stansbury said the team will be coming back to Bowling Green following the first round game. 

“We don’t want to lay around this hotel for another eight days,” Stansbury said. “We’ve done that once before and we won’t do that no more.” 

Men’s basketball beat reporter Kaden Gaylord can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Kaden on Twitter at @_KLG3.