WKU drops 2nd straight C-USA road game at FIU

Sophomore guard Taveion Hollingsworth hits the deck during WKU’s loss to Florida International Thursday in Diddle Arena. Hollingsworth had 14 points in the loss. 

Elliott Wells

The WKU men’s basketball team (14-8, 7-3 C-USA) closed its Florida road trip with another tough loss on Saturday afternoon, as the Hilltoppers stumbled against Florida International (15-8, 6-4 C-USA) in an 81-76 road loss in the Ocean Bank Convocation Center in Miami.

The Hilltoppers came to Florida with a five-game winning streak, but now WKU will pack its bags and return home to Bowling Green with back-to-back defeats against Conference USA foes after failing to get production from its bench in two straight games. 

Head coach Rick Stansbury, who entered the game with a 2-1 career mark against FIU, said WKU has to find ways to finish close road games defensively.

“We had an opportunity on the road to win under a minute to go,” Stansbury said. “I’ve got to do a better job finding one more stop somehow. One more stop. Whatever it is. Again, it gets magnified later in the game.”

WKU shot 41.9% from the floor against the Panthers and knocked down four 3-pointers in the second half. The Hilltoppers also outrebounded FIU 37-36 and outscored the Panthers 15-14 in second-chance points, but WKU had no answer for FIU inside the paint.

All five of WKU’s starters reached double figures, but redshirt senior wing Jared Savage led the Hilltoppers with 20 points and eight rebounds across 40 minutes played.

Junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth and redshirt junior forward Carson Williams both added 15 points in 36 minutes of action. Junior guard Josh Anderson recorded his first career double-double by scoring 14 points and picking up a career-high 10 rebounds.

Freshman guard Jordan Rawls started at point guard for the Hilltoppers, and he finished the afternoon with 12 points and seven assists across 39 total minutes. 

FIU and the Hilltoppers both had 14 turnovers, but the Panthers dominated WKU in the bench point category by getting 25 points from their reserve players compared to zero for WKU. The Panthers also exposed the WKU defense by shooting 53% from the floor.

The Panthers were led by a strong effort from senior forward Osasumwen Osaghae, who racked up 22 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in 35 minutes.

Redshirt senior forward Devon Andrews added 15 points, six rebounds and five assists, while junior wing Eric Lovett contributed 11 points and four rebounds for the Panthers in 20 minutes of action. 

FIU won the opening tipoff, but WKU scored the first basket of the game when Anderson drove the lane and scored a layup at the 19:26 mark.

The Panthers quickly evened up the score at 2-2 when Osaghae finished a dunk just 15 seconds later.

Anderson scored again at the 17:01 mark, this time on a backdoor cut, leading to a two-handed dunk that gave the Hilltoppers a 6-4 advantage.

FIU knotted the score at 6-6 at the 16:16 mark, but Hollingsworth was fouled on WKU’s next possession while attempting a 3-pointer from the corner. Hollingsworth converted 2-of-3 shots at the stripe to put the Hilltoppers back on top.

Rawls was rewarded with a basket after his shot was goaltended at the 15:02 mark, giving WKU a 10-6 advantage. But the Panthers responded with five straight points, taking their first lead of the game at the 14:19 mark, 11-10.

The Hilltoppers quickly evened the score up at 11-11 after Savage knocked down a free throw at the 13:17 mark. Hollingsworth converted two free throws earlier in the game, but the Lexington native recorded his first field goal when he drove to the right side of the court and finished a right-handed layup off the glass at the 12:39 mark.

FIU knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers at the 11:27 mark, taking an 18-14 lead. The Panthers scored again on their next possession when Andrews finished a monsterous right-handed dunk and gave FIU a six-point advantage.

The Hilltoppers soon worked their way back to trail just 15-14, but WKU turned the ball over five times in 2:53 of clock time. These miscues allowed the Panthers to score nine straight points, taking a 24-14 lead over the Hilltoppers at the 9:49 mark.

Savage ended the Panthers’ 9-0 run by converting a three-point play at the 9:30 mark to make the score 24-17.

Williams remained scoreless until the 9:05 mark when he converted two free throws at the charity stripe. The Hilltoppers couldn’t contain Osaghae on the other end of the court, as the senior forward finished a dunk to give the Panthers a 28-19 lead with 08:51 left in the first.

FIU kept scoring the ball at a consistent rate, as the Panthers scored another layup at the 6:44 mark to maintain a 32-23 lead.

Williams scored his first field goal of the game at the 5:28 mark, netting an easy layup and cutting the Panther lead to just 32-27.

The Panthers quickly scored four straight points to stretch their lead back to nine points when Osaghae finished another dunk at the 4:23 mark.

Osaghae slammed it home again at the 1:36 mark, granting the Panthers 43-33 advantage with the first half quickly coming to a close.

But the Hilltoppers then converted a much-needed three-point play with 23.3 seconds left in the first half to trail FIU 43-36.

The Hilltoppers had no answer for Osaghae in the first half, as he rocked the rim one last time in the first half with just five seconds remaining to give the Panthers a 45-36 lead at intermission.

Osaghae led the Panthers with 15 points in the first half on 7-of-9 shooting from the floor. The Miami native recorded five dunks in the first half of action.

FIU had seven different players score in the first half, with 32 of their 45 points coming in the painted area. The Panthers shot 62.5% from the floor in the opening half of play.

The Hilltoppers shot 46.2% from the floor, but the WKU defense had trouble slowing down Osaghae and the Panthers in the first half.

WKU got to the free-throw line at consistent rate in the first half, making 12-of-17 shots from the charity stripe. But the Hilltoppers struggled to shoot the ball from 3-point range, as WKU failed to make a 3-pointer on four attempts from behind the three-point line.

Just like WKU’s 69-65 loss against Florida Atlantic on Thursday night, only the Hilltoppers’ starting five scored in the opening half of play.

Hollingsworth and Savage both led the Hilltoppers with nine points in the first half, while Williams followed up with seven points and a rebound.

Redshirt freshman guard Jeremiah Gambrell and freshman center Isaiah Cozart both added minutes off the bench, but they combined for 0-of-1 shooting and one rebound in the first half.

Savage reached double figures on his first shot of the second half, as the Hilltoppers made their first 3-pointer of the game to trail the Panthers 45-39 just 26 seconds into the half. The Panthers soon scored four straight points and stretched their lead back to double figures.

Williams scored his ninth point at the 17:54 mark, cutting the Panther lead to 49-41, but FIU made its way to the free-throw line and pushed WKU back to a double-digit deficit.

Both teams continued to trade points, as Williams scored again and Andrews netted a layup for the Panthers to make the score 53-43 at the 15:51 media timeout.

Williams only shot the ball three times in the first half, but Williams came out of the halftime break with an aggressive nature, scoring four points on three shots just 2:32 in the half.

Savage gave WKU a boost at the 15:02 mark, netting his second triple of the game to trim the Panther lead to 55-48.

The Hilltoppers started to get into transition more often in the second half, as Rawls broke down the defense and finished a left-handed layup to cut the FIU lead to 60-52 with 13:14 to play.

FIU pushed its lead back to double digits once again, this time taking a 63-52 lead over the Hilltopers at the 10:39 mark.

Jacob then expanded the Panther lead to 13 points by using a shot fake to get open and slamming the ball through the hoop with his left hand.

Savage knocked down another triple at the 6:45 mark, giving himself 20 points on the night and cutting the FIU lead to 67-59. But Osaghae added to his stat line by scoring on the other end, pushing the Panthers’ advantage back to 10 points.

Hollingsworth quickly corralled the ball after Osaghae’s made dunk and drove the ball the length of the court, getting fouled on his way to the basket.

The Hilltoppers were rewarded with two free throws and the ball back after sophomore guard Antonio Daye Jr. picked up a flagrant I foul against Hollingsworth.

Hollingsworth converted both of his free throws, and then Rawls swished another two free throws, making it a six-point game with just 6:07 left in the contest, 69-63.

The four free throws attempted by Hollingsworth and Rawls were the first free throws WKU had tried in the entire second half to that point.

Lovett changed the trajectory of the game by draining a 3-pointer at the 5:51 mark, expanding the FIU lead to 72-63.

Hollingsworth made his way back to the line at the 5:04 mark, making both of his shots from the line to trim the FIU lead to just seven points. But Andrews scored on the other end, pushing the Panther advantage to 74-65.

Anderson cut WKU’s deficit to just six points after converting a three-point play with 3:58 left in the contest.

Rawls added another 3-pointer for the Hilltoppers, bringing the game to 74-71, its closest margin since FIU held an 18-14 lead at the 11:27 mark of the first half, with 3:25 to play.

Hollingsworth added a layup for the Hilltoppers with 43.1 seconds to play, bringing the Hilltoppers within two points with time winding down.

Daye Jr. basically finished off the Hilltoppers with a layup with 13 seconds remaining, and a made free throw by Andrews sealed a five-point road loss for WKU.

Following the loss, the Hilltoppers will return home for their blackout game against C-USA rival Louisiana Tech (16-5, 7-2 C-USA) next week.

WKU fans have been encouraged to wear black in accordance with the team’s new black Nike uniforms, which first debuted in a 72-62 road loss at Alabama-Birmingham on Jan. 9.

The new uniform combination marks the first time WKU has had an alternate uniform since 2015-16, and it’s the first time the program has worn a black kit since 2014-15.

Tipoff in Diddle Arena is set for 8 p.m. on Feb. 6.

The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.

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