The WKU men’s basketball team (16-8, 9-3 C-USA) returned to the hardwood with a win on Saturday night, as the Hilltoppers rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to outlast Southern Mississippi (7-18, 3-9 C-USA) in the final seconds of a 75-72 home victory in Diddle Arena.
WKU trailed the the Golden Eagles 41-31 at intermission, but the Hilltoppers shot 50% in the second half and only allowed Southern Miss to score 31 more points in the second half.
The Hilltoppers entered Saturday with an 11-1 lead in the all-time series against Southern Miss, including eight straight wins and a 6-0 mark at home, but head coach Rick Stansbury said the Golden Eagles proved to be a formidable foe during their latest visit to Diddle Arena.
“Give Southern Miss come credit,” Stansbury said. “I thought they played exceptionally well, particularly that first 20 minutes. They came in loose and made shots.”
Despite not getting into a consistent flow during the game, the Hilltoppers only turned the ball over three times. After failing to score a single bench point during a two-game trip to Florida last weekend, WKU outscored Southern Miss 12-7 in that category.
Redshirt junior forward Carson Williams led the way for the Hilltoppers, finishing with 24 points and five rebounds. Junior guard Josh Anderson posted 16 points, three rebounds, one assist and one steal in 33:50 of playing time.
Redshirt senior wing Jared Savage snagged a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds, while graduate guard Camron Justice added 12 points in 24 minutes off the bench.
“They zoned us a lot,” Savage said. “So, we kind of settled for threes. But in the second half, we kind of got into a rhythm, threw it to Carson a little bit, got some inside buckets. I mean, we cleaned it up in the second half. In the first half, it was very sloppy and a little slow-paced. We like to get the [ball] out and go, but they kind of slowed us down with that.”
The Golden Eagles outrebounded the Hilltoppers 41-33 and even outshot WKU 44% compared to 42%. Southern Miss relied heavily on one another in a tough road environment, picking up 21 assists on 28 made field goals during the game.
Junior guard LaDavius Draine led the Golden Eagles with 21 points and 10 rebounds on 8-of-16 shooting from the floor in 40 minutes of action.
Sophomore guard Gabe Watson also played the full 40 minutes for the Golden Eagles, tallying 16 points and seven assists.
The Hilltoppers won the opening tipoff against the Golden Eagles, and WKU scored its first points when freshman guard Jordan Rawls dribbled around a Southern Miss defender and swished in a right-handed shot just 32 seconds later.
Both teams came out firing on all cylinders to start the game, as both Southern Miss and WKU opened the contest by making each of their first five shots from the floor.
The Hilltoppers made their first five baskets of the contest until Rawls missed a 3-pointer at the 16:50 mark, while Southern Miss scored its first six shots from the field until the Golden Eagles missed their first field goal of the game at the 14:54 mark.
Southern Miss led the Hilltoppers 15-13 by the first media timeout at the 14:52 mark, and the Golden Eagles were shooting 85.7% from the floor compared to a 54.5% clip from WKU.
WKU made its way to the free-throw line for the time of the evening at the 14:21 mark after Anderson was fouled on his way to the basket. The 6-foot-6-inch guard converted both of his foul shots, tying the score at 15-15.
On the next Golden Eagle possession, Watson knocked down a triple from the left corner of the floor to give Southern Miss an 18-15 advantage.
The Golden Eagles made their first four 3-pointers to start the game, but Watson missed Southern Miss’ first triple of the night at the 12:33 mark.
WKU trailed the Golden Eagles 24-17 with 10:13 left to play in the first half, but Justice swished a mid-range jumper and Anderson converted a pair of free throws to pull the Hilltoppers within three points of Southern Miss.
Southern Miss pushed its lead to 30-23 at the 7:17 mark when Draine nailed his third 3-pointer of the opening half.
The Golden Eagles went on a scoring drought that lasted 2:54 of clock time, allowing the Hilltoppers to produce a 5-0 run and only trail Southern Miss 32-28 at the 3:59 mark.
Southern Miss then scored four straight points, stretching its lead out to 36-28 at the 2:15 mark. Justice answered by knocking down his first triple of the evening just 15 seconds later, bringing the score within five points.
WKU allowed the Golden Eagles to finish the half on a 5-0 run, taking their largest lead of the game just before intermission. Southern Miss led the Hilltoppers at halftime, 41-31.
Southern Miss shot 51.6% from the floor and made 6-of-14 shots from beyond the arc in the first half. Watson led the Golden Eagles in the first half with 14 points and added four assists in a full 20 minutes of action. Draine followed up with 13 points, making 3-of-5 shots in 20 minutes.
WKU shot 36.4% from the floor in the first half, but struggled shooting from distance, tallying only two made 3-pointers out of 14 shots attempted.
Despite the Hilltoppers struggling from distance in the first half, WKU outscored the Golden Eagles 16-10 in the paint.
Williams led the Hilltoppers with 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the first half of action. Each WKU starter recorded at least one made basket in the first half, and Justice came off the bench to add five points in 9:30 of action.
The Hilltoppers forced the Golden Eagles to turn the ball over on their first possession of the second half, but WKU failed to score on its opening possession after junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth missed a 3-pointer at the 19:33 mark.
Hollingsworth completed an old-fashioned three-point play at the 18:48 mark, cutting the Golden Eagle lead to 41-34.
After a Southern Miss turnover, Savage swished his second 3-pointer of the night and cut the WKU deficit to just four points.
But the Golden Eagles increased their lead back to seven points, as freshman forward Artur Konontsuk drained a triple of his own at the 18:09 mark.
Southern Miss held a 46-38 lead at the 17:50 mark, but Williams converted a three-point play at the 17:32 mark and trimmed the Golden Eagle lead to just five points.
The Hilltoppers completed another three-point play when Anderson brought the Hilltoppers within six points at the 16:09 mark.
Anderson kept closing the gap for WKU, as the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native scored a layup at the 15:45 mark to trail the Golden Eagles, 50-46.
WKU continued to get to the charity stripe, as Williams was fouled on a layup attempt at the 14:32 mark. The 6-foot-5-inch forward was rewarded with two free throws, and he made both of his foul shots to cut the Golden Eagle lead to just 50-48.
Drained swished a 3-pointer on Southern Miss’ next possession, but Savage answered by hitting a triple on the other end.
Redshirt senior guard Jerrod Rigby tied his career-high of three points by swishing a 3-pointer at the 13:33 mark. His make gave the Golden Eagles a 56-51 advantage.
Anderson made his way back to the free-throw line once more at the 11:48 mark, and he swished both of his free throws, to trim the Southern Miss lead to 56-55.
The Hilltoppers forced the Golden Eagles into two consecutive shot-clock violations, but WKU was unable to recapture the lead and allowed Southern Miss to increase its lead to four points.
Williams and Anderson scored a pair of baskets at the rim, tying the score at 59-59 at the 8:14 mark, but Southern Miss regained its lead just 11 seconds later.
Justice scored a jumper to tie the game at 61-61, but the Golden Eagles recaptured their lead at the 6:20 mark, when redshirt senior forward Leonard Harper-Baker scored a layup to put Southern Miss up by two points.
The Hilltoppers tried regaining the lead by shooting three straight triples, but WKU was unable to successfully make a deep ball.
WKU went 3:39 of clock time without a point until Williams netted a free throw that cut the Golden Eagle lead to 63-62.
Savage brought Hilltoppers fans to their feet with just 3:19 left in the game, as the Bowling Green native swished a 3-pointer from the right corner and gave WKU a 65-63 lead.
Southern Miss had missed five straight shots, but sophomore forward Tyler Stevenson converted a three-point play at the 3:07 mark to give the Golden Eagles a 66-65 lead.
Williams scored four straight points for the Hilltoppers, allowing WKU to hold a 69-66 lead with 1:03 left in the game.
Southern Miss brought the score within a point, but Justice increased the Hilltopper lead once again by draining a 3-pointer with 21 seconds remaining.
The Golden Eagles would score again, cutting the score to 72-70. Southern Miss would then foul Hollingsworth, sending the Lexington native to the charity stripe. He converted 1-of-2 shots, giving the Hilltoppers 73-70 lead with 13 seconds left.
The Hilltopppers fouled Southern Miss with 7.3 seconds left, sending Watson to the line, where he converted two free throws and trimmed the Hilltopper lead to just 73-72.
Justice was fouled with 6.2 seconds left, and the upperclassman put the Hilltoppers up 75-72 by swishing each of his two free throws.
Watson looked to tie the game up with a 3-point attempt as time expired, but his shot was off the mark, allowing the Hilltoppers to survive for a three-point victory.
Following the win, the Hilltoppers will head west for road meetings at Texas-El Paso (13-12, 4-8 C-USA) and Texas-San Antonio (11-14, 5-7 C-USA) next weekend.
Tipoff in the Don Haskins Center is set for 8 p.m. on Feb. 13, while game time in the Convocation Center is slated for 2 p.m. on Feb. 15.
Stadium will broadcast the UTEP game exclusively on Facebook, while the UTSA game 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.