Hilltoppers defeat FIU 91-85 for 20th win, secure No. 2 seed in C-USA Tournament bracket

WKU coach Rick Stansbury glares at the referee after a called travel was called on WKU. Louisville defeated the Hilltoppers 71-54 in Bridgestone Arena on Sunday, Nov. 17 2019, in Nashville.

Elliott Wells

The WKU men’s basketball team (20-10, 13-5 C-USA) capped the 2019-20 regular season with a win on Saturday evening, as the Hilltoppers cruised past Florida International (18-13, 9-9 C-USA) in a 91-85 road triumph in the Ocean Bank Convocation Center in Miami.

The Hilltoppers were 34-9 all-time against the Panthers, but WKU faltered during an 81-76 loss in Miami on Feb. 1, which was the last meeting between the two sides. That defeat is a distant memory now, as WKU will be heading into the C-USA Tournament as the No. 2 seed.

WKU also secured the 46th 20-win season in program history. Only Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, Kansas and Louisville had more 20-win seasons entering Saturday.

Head coach Rick Stansbury, who is now 3-2 in his career against FIU, said his team had a lot to play for during the final regular season game of the 2019-20 campaign.

“Those guys got it done,” Stansbury said postgame. “You know, there’s not a lot of teams that could get off the mat after what we went through. There was a championship at stake, and we didn’t finish it off. Most teams would’ve come down [to FIU] with not much to play for — except for us.”

“We’re playing for second place and 20 wins,” Stansbury continued. “As long as they keep score, you play to win. A lot of teams couldn’t do that, but it tells you the character about the guys we have.”

From the opening whistle, the Hilltoppers showcased their dominance on the offensive side of the court, shooting 54% from the floor for the contest. The Hilltoppers also made nine 3-pointers and converted 18 of their 20 shots from the free-throw line.

Six Hilltoppers reached double figures for the first time since a 91-84 home win over Marshall on Jan. 25, and junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth paced WKU with another high-scoring night, finishing with 21 points, four rebounds and four assists in 33 minutes played.

Redshirt junior forward Carson Williams tallied a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds, while graduate guard Camron Justice added 15 points off the bench.

“Honestly, this game felt good,” Justice said postgame. “I shot the ball well for us, done some other things and honestly, I told my parents the other day that I felt the best that I’ve felt in probably three to four weeks. So, I’m happy with where I’m at right now and I’m excited to get into this conference tournament and see what we can do.”

Freshman guard Jordan Rawls had 14, redshirt senior wing Jared Savage had 11 and junior guard Josh Anderson had 10 points to round out the double-digit scorers for WKU.

Despite shooting 42% from the floor against WKU, the Panthers shot 50% from the floor in the first half. FIU drained 11 3-pointers and its bench outscored the Hilltopper bench 20-17.

Four FIU players tallied double-digit scoring nights, led by senior guard Trejon Jacob’s 18 points and six boards. Junior guard Isaiah Banks added 17 points, while redshirt senior forward Devon Andrews and senior forward Osasumwen Osaghae contributed 12 and 11 points, respectively.

Osaghae won the opening tipoff for the Panthers, but FIU didn’t score its first basket of the game until Jacob scored a layup inside the paint at the 18:44 mark.

Hollingsworth quickly evened the score at 2-2 with a mid-range jumper just nine seconds later.

FIU controlled a 4-2 lead at the 18:20 mark, but the Hilltoppers scored eight consecutive points and held a 10-4 lead at the 16:31 mark.

The Panthers erased WKU’s 8-0 scoring run by scoring five straight from the floor, cutting the Hilltopper lead to 10-9 with 15:52 to play in the first half.

Rawls came out of the gates steaming hot, scoring nine points by the 14:53 mark after swishing a pair of 3-pointers and completing an old-fashioned three-point play. The Hilltoppers maintained a 16-10 lead after Rawls’ three-point play.

The Panthers responded by mounting a 7-0 run, retaking the lead at 17-16 with 13:21 to play. 

Williams also got out to a hot start for WKU, scoring nine points from made shots from behind the three-point line by the 10:49 mark.

The Hilltoppers jumped out to a 30-21 advantage at the 9:59 mark when Savage completed an alley-oop slam, but the Panthers scored seven straight points and cut the WKU lead to just 30-28 at the 8:32 mark.

Once the Panthers cut WKU’s advantage to just two points, the Hilltoppers and FIU traded baskets for a three-minute period.

During that time frame, Justice came off the bench and poured in eight points for the Hilltoppers, helping WKU control a 42-39 lead at the 5:43 mark.

FIU cut WKU’s advantage to just a point after Justice scored another layup, but Rawls and Williams each reached the double-figure mark on WKU’s next two possessions. 

The score was knotted at 45-45 with 3:27 left in the opening half, but the Panthers once again regained their lead, as Osaghae scored a left-handed shot for FIU at the 2:36 mark.

Savage was cold for the majority of the first half, but the Bowling Green native scored his second bucket of the evening with 14 seconds left in the half, evening the score at 47-47.

The 47-47 tie lasted until the buzzer sounded for halftime. Both teams came out scorching hot from the floor in the first half, as FIU and WKU both had two players score 10 or more points.

WKU shot an impressive 66% from the floor in the opening frame, and Rawls led the Hilltoppers with 11 points, shooting 4-of-7 from the floor in 18 minutes. Williams tallied 10 points in the first half, netting three 3-pointers and collecting five rebounds in 16 minutes of playing time.

FIU shot the ball at even an 50% clip from the floor in the first half, as Jacob and Banks each scored 10 points and recorded a pair of assists for the Panthers.

Both teams also recorded seven made 3-pointers each in the first 20 minutes of action.

The Hilltoppers possessed the ball to begin the second half, but Rawls missed a shot from beyond the arc. FIU scored on its opening possession of the half, as redshirt senior Devon Andrews swished a pair of free throws to give his team a 49-47 lead.

WKU turned the ball over on its second possession and allowed Andrews to score again, as he drained a 3-pointer to give FIU a five-point lead at the 18:52 mark.

The Hilltoppers then scored seven unanswered points to regain their lead at 54-52 with 17:15 left to play in the contest. WKU led 56-54 during a media timeout taken at the 16:09 mark.

WKU struggled to take care of the ball during the early portion of the second half, as the Hilltoppers turned the ball over for the sixth time of the frame at the 14:22 mark.

The Hilltoppers controlled a 60-56 lead at the 13:46 mark after Williams netted a pair of foul shots, but the Panthers quickly cut the WKU lead to just a point after junior wing Eric Lovett converted his second 3-pointer of the game.

WKU pushed its lead to five points during the second media timeout, only allowing the Panthers to score once in their last nine trips down the floor at the 11:10 mark.

After the media timeout, FIU scored five points in 36 seconds, cutting the Hilltopper lead to 66-64 with 10:34 left in the contest.

Savage became the fourth WKU player to reach double figures at the 8:55 mark, as the redshirt senior wing’s layup advanced the Hilltopper lead to three points.

WKU held a 74-70 lead after Anderson scored a layup at the 7:14 mark, but the Hilltoppers allowed Banks to convert a three-point play at the 6:52 mark.

Justice swished his third 3-pointer of the contest with 6:30 left to play in the game, pushing the Hilltopper lead back to four points at 77-73 and becoming the fifth WKU player to reach a double-digit scoring output.

The Hilltoppers reached the bonus at the 10:33 mark, and WKU stayed aggressive from the floor, as Justice got to the free-throw line at the 5:54 mark. The graduate guard swished both of his foul shots to give WKU a 79-73 advantage.

Justice capped a personal 7-0 scoring run with a fastbreak layup at the 5:38 mark, giving the Hilltoppers an 81-73 lead over the Panthers.

Hollingsworth then finished off an old-fashioned three-point play at the 3:54 mark, pushing WKU to a nine-point lead, its largest advantage of the game to that point.

FIU cut the Hilltopper lead to 84-79 with 2:38 to go after Banks soared through the air for a dunk, but Williams ended the Panther 4-0 run by scoring a layup.

The Panthers again cut the WKU lead to five points with 49 seconds left in the game, but FIU was forced to foul Rawls with 35 seconds remaining.

The Chattanooga, Tennessee, native stayed composed under pressure, knocking down both of his foul shots to give WKU a 90-83 lead.

Rawls made another free throw with 26 seconds to go, allowing senior guard Evan Stack and redshirt junior guard Patrick Murphy to check in for the contest’s final seconds.

The Hilltoppers rolled over the Panthers down the stretch, avenging a heartbreaking loss earlier this season by securing a six-point road victory.

Following the win, the Hilltoppers will head west for the C-USA Tournament, which will take place from March 11-14 in the Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas.

WKU has played in the last two C-USA Tournament championship games, but the Hilltoppers fell short of securing the league’s automatic-qualifier spot on both occasions.

As the No. 2 seed, WKU will have a first-round bye in the postseason event and play its opening game in the quarterfinals on Thursday.

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