Hilltoppers drop 1st game of C-USA Bonus Play against clutch-shooting Charlotte

WKU guard Taveion Hollingsworth (11) tries to move inside at the Charlotte v WKU basketball game on Feb 22, 2020 in Diddle Arena. The Hilltoppers were defeated 72-20.

Elliott Wells

The WKU men’s basketball team (18-9, 11-4 C-USA) opened Conference USA Bonus Play with a crushing loss on Saturday night, as the Hilltoppers dropped a 72-70 heartbreaker against Charlotte (15-11, 9-6 C-USA) for their first league loss in Diddle Arena this season.

The Hilltoppers trailed for 36:38 of clock time in their loss to the 49ers, but WKU battled back and had the game knotted at 70-70 with 11 ticks left on the game clock.

Redshirt junior guard Jordan Shepherd took the game into his own hands on the final possession, as the Asheville, North Carolina, native scored a right-handed layup with two seconds left and handed WKU its first loss in three weeks.

WKU was 21-10 all-time against the 49ers, including an 80-63 home win on Jan. 18, but head coach Rick Stansbury said Charlotte deserved a lot of credit for hitting timely shots.

“Give Charlotte credit,” Stansbury said postgame. “They came in here and played exceptionally well. They jumped up and made timely shots, sometimes that’s the basketball game. I felt like we never got into a great flow for us.”

Five Hilltoppers reached double-digit scoring outputs, led by 18 points from redshirt junior forward Carson Williams. Junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth tallied 16 points, while junior guard Josh Anderson finished with 15 points in his return to the starting five.

“I mean, we started out too slow,” Anderson said postgame. “We got away with it in the past, but it’s not going to happen every time. We’ve got to come out and play harder and do better in the first half at the beginning of the game.”

Redshirt senior wing Jared Savage and graduate guard Camron Justice rounded out the double-figure scorers by posting 11 and 10 points, respectively, for WKU.

The Hilltoppers only scored 27 points in the opening half, but WKU outscored Charlotte 43-39 in the second period. WKU shot 46% from the floor across the game, and the Hilltoppers made 19-of-23 free throws from the charity stripe.

The 49ers also had five players reach double figures, as junior forward Milos Supica came off the bench and led Charlotte with 14 points and seven rebounds in 25:50 of action. Shepherd recorded a double-double by tallying 13 points and 10 assists in 34:26 of playing time.

Charlotte only netted three shots from distance in the first 33:20 of action, but the 49ers stepped up and drained four triples in the last 6:40 of the contest. The 49ers controlled the paint against WKU, outscoring the Hilltoppers 46-36 inside the painted area.

Senior forward Amidou Bamba won the opening tipoff for the 49ers, and Charlotte scored on its opening possession after freshman guard Jahmir Young broke free for an easy layup just 11 seconds into the contest.

The Hilltoppers started out flat, turning the ball over on six straight possessions, allowing Charlotte to hold a 6-0 advantage at the 16:53 mark.

WKU finally got on the scoreboard at the 16:25 mark after Anderson soared through the air and drilled an athletic layup. Anderson cut the 49er lead to 6-2 before hitting the deck with a thud.

The Hilltoppers trailed at the media timeout taken with 15:57 to play in the first half, but WKU strung together a 4-0 run and cut its deficit to only two points at 8-6.

Young swished in the first 3-pointer of the night at the 14:31 mark to push the 49ers back to a two-possession lead at 11-6.

The Hilltoppers cut the Charlotte lead to 15-14 at the 10:52 mark after Hollingsworth finished an acrobatic layup in the lane, but the 49ers answered by scoring five straight points. Charlotte then held a 20-14 lead at the 9:45 mark.

Although the Hilltoppers struggled early in the contest, Hollingsworth took charge in scoring for WKU and tallied nine points by the 8:35 mark.

WKU still trailed at the 6:55 mark, as Charlotte held a 22-17 lead. By the third media timeout, the 49ers had only allowed the Hilltoppers to score once in their last eight possessions.

Charlotte looked to push its lead to double digits when senior guard Drew Edwards released a 3-point shot from the left corner of the court at the 2:35 mark, but his shot was off the mark.

Bamba was called for an over-the-back foul on the play, allowing Williams to reach the free-throw line for a one-and-one bonus free throw.

Instead of Charlotte pushing its lead to 11 points, Williams swished a pair of free throws and trimmed the 49er lead to 31-25 at the 2:34 mark.

Charlotte missed yet another shot from distance, allowing WKU to secure a long rebound and get Anderson out in transition. He was fouled on his way to the basket and got sent to the charity stripe, where he cut the Charlotte lead to 31-27 after a pair of made foul shots.

The Hilltoppers ended the first half just how they opened it, failing to score in the final 2:13 of clock time to trail Charlotte 33-27 at the halftime break.

In the first half, WKU struggled to find a flow from the floor, as the Hilltoppers turned the ball over seven times and shot a disappointing 0-of-8 from the three-point line.

WKU converted just one of their final eight attempts from the floor, but the team was successful at the free-throw line in the first half, converting 9-of-10 shots from the stripe.

Only four players scored for the Hilltoppers in the first half. Anderson led the pack for WKU, scoring 10 points across 17:33 of action in the opening half of play. Hollingsworth followed up with nine points and three rebounds in 16:09 of action.

Charlotte led for a total of 19:49 in the first half, holding its largest lead at eight points with 3:26 mark. From the opening seconds, the 49ers controlled the paint, outscoring the Hilltoppers 26-18 inside the painted area. 

Young paced the 49ers in the first half, scoring all seven of his points by the 14:31 mark, but Supica came off the bench and led Charlotte with eight points in 11:03 minutes played.

The Hilltoppers missed their first eight shots from beyond the arc, but Savage knocked down WKU’s first triple of the game during the first WKU possession of the second half.

WKU cut the Charlotte lead to 33-30 after Savage made a 3-pointer, but sophomore guard Malik Martin scored his first points of the evening for Charlotte. He converted a three-point play at the 19:29 mark, pushing the 49er lead back to six points.

The Hilltoppers came out of the locker room with newfound energy, as WKU scored on its first three possessions and outscored the 49ers 8-4 by the 18:38 mark.

WKU cut the Charlotte lead to 41-39 when Savage scored an easy dunk at the 16:06 mark, but the 49ers completed another three-point play and expanded their lead to five points.

Charlotte pushed its lead to 47-40 at the 12:51 mark, as WKU went 2:26 of clock time without a point until Williams muscled his way into the lane for a contested left-hand layup.

Hollingsworth cut the 49er lead to 47-44 after netting a pair of free throws, becoming the second Hilltopper player to reach double figures.

Graduate guard Camron Justice looked to even the score at 47-47 at the 11:19 mark, but his shot bounced off the rim. The 49ers responded by scoring three straight points to hold a 50-44 lead at the 10:26 mark.

Justice finally netted his first 3-pointer of the contest at the 9:58 mark, bringing the Hilltoppers within three points of the 49ers at 50-47.

The Hindman native scored again just 55 seconds later, but Charlotte scored on the other end to control its lead at five points.

Williams converted a pair of free throws, and then Justice evened the game at 54-54 by finishing an old-fashioned three-point play at the 7:10 mark.

Hilltopper fans rose to their feet with the game knotted for the time since the score was 0-0, but Young silenced the Diddle faithful by draining a 3-pointer as the shot clock neared its end.

Hollingsworth cut the score to just a point, but the 49ers netted yet another 3-pointer at the 5:56 mark to hold a 60-56 lead.

Savage picked up his fourth personal foul at the 10:26 mark, but the Bowling Green native checked back into the contest with 5:03 left to play. 

The Hilltoppers took their first lead of the game just a minute after Savage checked back into the contest, as freshman guard Jordan Rawls found Hollingsworth for a 3-pointer in the right-side corner.

WKU increased its lead at the 3:06 mark, as Williams netted a shot at the charity stripe and gave the Hilltoppers a 62-60 lead over the 49ers.

The 49ers answered on their next possession, tying the score at 62-62 with 2:50 left in the contest. Charlotte scored another quick basket seconds later, regaining its lead at 64-62.

Anderson evened the score up for the Hilltoppers at the 1:39 mark, as the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native soared through the air for a monstrous dunk that caused Charlotte head coach Ron Sanchez to ask for a 30-second timeout.

Directly after the timeout, Edwards netted his first 3-pointer of the game, giving the 49ers a 67-64 advantage with 1:14 left in the game.

Savage knotted the game at 67-67 when he knocked home a triple with 53 seconds left in the game. Edwards and Savage continued trading buckets from the behind the three-point line, eventually resulting in one final Charlotte possession with the game tied at 70-70.

Sanchez called another timeout with 11 seconds to go to set up his offense, drawing up a play for Shepherd to score a right-handed layup as the game clock dwindled down.

Hollingsworth launched a last-ditch shot from half court, but it was too little, too late. WKU couldn’t preserve its four-game winning streak, and Charlotte claimed a two-point win.

Following the loss, the Hilltoppers will remain in Bowling Green and host No. 3 seed Louisiana Tech (20-7, 11-4 C-USA) next Thursday. The Bulldogs defeated top-seeded North Texas (18-10, 12-3 C-USA) 73-71 on Saturday night, meaning the top two teams in C-USA lost by a combined four points.

Tipoff in Diddle Arena is set for 7 p.m. on Feb. 27.

The primetime game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.

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