Hilltoppers fall in overtime at North Texas, Mean Green claim C-USA regular-season title

DENTON, TX – MARCH 1: North Texas Mean Green Men’s Basketball v Western Kentucky University at Super Pit – North Texas Coliseum on March 1, 2020 in Denton, Texas.

Elliott Wells

The WKU men’s basketball team (19-10, 12-5 C-USA) came up short in a 78-72 overtime loss against North Texas (20-10, 14-3 C-USA) on Sunday afternoon, as the Hilltoppers allowed the Mean Green to clinch the Conference USA regular-season title in the Super Pit in Denton, Texas.

WKU was alone in second place in the league table and could’ve moved into a tie for first place with a win Sunday. The Hilltoppers seemed poised to secure the important victory, boasting a 23-5 all-time record against the Mean Green and wins in each of the last 11 meetings between the two schools, including a 93-84 triumph on Jan. 2 in Diddle Arena.

Head coach Rick Stansbury, who entered Sunday with a perfect 6-0 career mark against North Texas, had junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth at the free-throw line with five seconds remaining in regulation.

Hollingsworth, an 83.8% shooter at the foul line this season, missed two foul shots and sent the 63-63 game into overtime, where the Hilltoppers allowed North Texas to shoot 100% from the floor.

“The thing you can’t take away from our guys is the toughness and the effort we played with, man,” Stansbury said postgame. “That’s about as good as we played right there from a toughness standpoint. I couldn’t have asked anything more from them.”

The Hilltoppers forced the Mean Green into 15 turnovers, picking up 10 steals against North Texas. WKU shot 44% from the field in its loss to the Mean Green, going 8 for 20 from behind the three-point line in defeat.

Hollingsworth led the Hilltoppers in scoring for the second consecutive game of the weekend, finishing with 22 points, three assists and two rebounds across 42 minutes of action.

Redshirt junior forward Carson Williams was a rebound shy of double-double, as the 6-foot-5-inch forward recorded 19 points, nine rebounds a team-high six assists.

Graduate guard Camron Justice made his second consecutive start, replacing junior guard Josh Anderson in the starting five. Anderson came off the WKU bench and scored 16 points on 7-of-13 shooting from the floor.

Senior guard Evan Stack made his WKU debut with 1.1 seconds left in the game, logging a few moments on the court before the game clock struck 0:00.

WKU is known for its ability to get to the free-throw line and make foul shots, but North Texas had the upper hand at the free-throw line on Sunday, as the Mean Green shot 19-of-22 from the charity stripe compared to the Hilltoppers shooting just 10-of-18.

Redshirt junior guard Javion Hamlet led the Mean Green with 25 points and nine assists in 39 minutes against the Hilltoppers. Junior guard Thomas Bell added 20 points and eight rebounds across 33 minutes of action off the Mean Green bench.

Williams won the opening tipoff for the Hilltoppers, and the Owenton native swished a 3-pointer in the first 19 seconds of the contest to give WKU an early 3-0 advantage. 

The Hilltoppers jumped out to a quick 10-4 lead after Hollingsworth finished off a personal run of seven straight points from the field at the 15:51 mark.

North Texas erupted on a 4-0 run to cut the Hilltopper lead to just 10-8 at the 14:40 mark. 

The Mean Green evened the score up for the time since the score was tied at 0-0 when Hamlet swished in his first triple of the game at the 13:43 mark.

Anderson quickly regained the lead for the Hilltoppers by scoring a layup, but North Texas gained its first lead of the game at the 12:45 mark when redshirt sophomore guard Umoja Gibson drained North Texas’ third 3-pointer of the contest.

By the second media timeout of the first half, the Hilltoppers and the Mean Green had already experienced four lead changes. WKU held a 17-16 lead at the 9:45 mark.

WKU went on a scoring drought that lasted 3:28 of clock time until Hollingsworth knocked down a pair of free throws at the charity stripe, increasing the WKU lead to 19-16 at the 7:41 mark.

The Mean Green also went on scoring drought, going 4:16 of clock time without a basket until redshirt senior forward Deng Geu knocked down a right-handed jumper to cut the Hilltopper lead to 21-18 at the 7:12 mark.

North Texas cut its deficit to just a point at the 6:40 mark after Hamlet made a pair of free throws, but the Hilltoppers mounted a 4-0 run to possess a 25-20 lead with 5:31 remaining.

The Hilltoppers then allowed North Texas to mount a 5-0 scoring run, tying the game at 25-25 with four minutes left to play before the halftime break.

WKU went on another 4-0 run, as Anderson soared through the air for a right-handed slam dunk and redshirt senior wing Jared Savage scored his first points of the game after Hollingsworth found the Bowling Green native for an alley-oop at the 3:09 mark.

Hamlet became the second player in the contest to reach double figures, as the Memphis, Tennessee, native netted a free throw to knot the game at 29-29 with 2:26 left in the first half.

Anderson scored another layup for the Hilltoppers, but North Texas produced its longest run of the half to hold its largest lead of the game at intermission. The Mean Green mounted a 7-0 run over the last 1:42 of clock time, claiming a 36-31 lead at the halftime break.

North Texas made each of its last three field goals during its combined 11-2 to end the opening frame, and the Mean Green were aided by WKU failing to score for the final 2:12 of clock time.

Hamlet led North Texas with 14 points in the first half, scoring nine points in the final 6:40 of clock time. The Mean Green only led for 2:26 of clock time in the first period, but North Texas shot 50% from the floor and hit five 3-pointers from behind the three-point line.

WKU led for 16:11 of clock time in the first half, shooting 43% from the floor. Hollingsworth led the Hilltoppers with 11 points in 18 minutes of action.

North Texas destroyed WKU inside the painted area in the first meeting between the two teams on Jan. 2 in Diddle Arena, outscoring the Hilltoppers 42-26 inside the paint. But in the first half on Sunday, WKU held an 18-16 advantage inside the paint.

The Hilltoppers forced North Texas into two straight turnovers to begin the second half, and WKU took advantage of the Mean Green miscues by scoring at the 18:52 mark and cutting its deficit to only three points.

Anderson became the second WKU player to reach double figures, as the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native cut in the lane and scored a right-handed layup at the 16:34 mark.

The Hilltoppers scored on their next two possessions, as Hollingsworth scored his second basket of the half and then Williams drained his second triple of the game to cut the Mean Green lead to 42-40 at the 15:18 mark.

Williams scored on the Hilltoppers’ next possession, tying the game up at 42-42 at the 14:28 mark. WKU regained its lead at the 13:15 mark when Hollingsworth scored a jumper inside the paint, but North Texas quickly jumped in front 45-44 after Bell knocked down a pair of free throws at the 12:58 mark.

Williams knotted the game at 45-45 after a free throw, but Bell regained a two-point advantage for North Texas when he netted a jumper for the Mean Green at the 12:15 mark.

Hollingsworth reached 20 points at the 10:04 mark, as the Lexington native completed a three-point play and cut the North Texas lead to 51-50.

The Hilltoppers knotted the score once again at the 8:13 mark, as Williams knocked down his third 3-pointer of the game to even the score at 55-55.

Anderson hit his first 3-pointer of the game at the 7:04 mark, and the 6-foot-6-inch guard gave the Hilltoppers a 58-55 advantage with his made shot.

Justice scored his first points of the contest at the 5:12 mark, as the graduate guard scored a pair of free throws. Williams stole the ball from a North Texas player and slammed the ball home, giving WKU a 62-55 lead with 4:58 remaining in the game.

WKU held a 63-57 advantage at the final media timeout with 3:32 left in the game, but North Texas scored six straight points to even the game at 63-63 at the 2:17 mark.

Stansbury called a full timeout with 1:15 left in the game to set up his offense. Hollingsworth turned the ball over directly after the timeout with 55 seconds remaining in the game.

Hollingsworth had the chance to put WKU ahead  at the free-throw line with five seconds left in the game, but the 6-foot-2-inch guard missed both of his attempts. North Texas had one final shot, but the Hilltoppers forced their second consecutive game into overtime.

North Texas won the opening tipoff of the overtime period, and Gibson gave the Mean Green a two-point advantage after netting a pair of free throws at the 4:14 mark. 

Justice converted his first field goal of the contest by draining a 3-pointer at the 3:55 mark, but the Hilltoppers allowed Hamlet to convert a three-point play. His timely shots helped North Texas regain a 68-66 lead over the Hilltoppers.

After missing out on WKU’s previous overtime game against Louisiana Tech on Feb. 27 due to foul trouble, Savage was able to make his presence known by providing the Hilltoppers with a huge 3-pointer that gave WKU a 69-68 advantage with 2:29 left in overtime.

North Texas regained the lead after finishing off back-to-back lobs with emphatic slam dunks, taking a 72-69 lead over the Hilltoppers with 1:27 left in overtime.

The Mean Green turned the ball over with 52 seconds left, allowing Savage to score the ball and cutting the WKU deficit to 72-71.

North Texas scored on its next possession, increasing its lead to 74-71 with 31 seconds remaining. Anderson cut the North Texas lead to 74-72 after going 1-of-2 from the free-throw line with 26 seconds left in the game.

WKU fouled North Texas with 15 seconds left in the contest, sending junior guard James Reese to the free-throw line. He netted his foul shots, expanding the Mean Green lead to four points.

The Hilltoppers came up empty on their next possession, and fouled Hamlet with a second left in the game. Hamlet netted both free throws, and WKU eventually fell by a six-point margin in its first road game in C-USA Bonus Play.

Following the loss, the Hilltoppers will travel to Miami before concluding C-USA Bonus Play and the regular season against No. 5 seed Florida International (18-11, 9-7 C-USA) next weekend.

The Panthers are 1-1 so far in C-USA Bonus play, falling to North Texas 78-59 on Feb. 27 and picking up a 67-52 win over Charlotte (15-12, 9-7 C-USA) on Sunday.

Tipoff in the Ocean Bank Convocation Center is set for 6 p.m. on March 7.

WKU’s regular season finale will be streamed live on CBS Sports Network on Facebook, which hosts games produced by CBS and broadcast exclusively on the social media platform.

Reporter Elliott Wells can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Elliott on Twitter at @ewells5.