Road Warriors: Hilltoppers silence Thundering Herd, come from behind to hand Marshall 64-60 loss

Junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth (11) pulls up for a contested 3-pointer late in the shot clock during the WKU Hilltoppers’ 71-69 comeback win over the Old Dominion Monarchs on Thursday, Jan. 16 in Diddle Arena.

Elliott Wells

The WKU men’s basketball team (13-6, 6-1 C-USA) opened its rivalry series with Marshall (9-11, 3-4 C-USA) on Wednesday night, and the Hilltoppers claimed a come-from-behind thriller in Game 1 of the hardwood edition of the Moonshine Throwdown with a 64-60 Conference USA triumph in the Cam Henderson Center in Huntington, West Virginia.

The latest battle between the Hilltoppers and Thundering Herd was the first of a unique two-game set that will pit the two rivals against each other twice in four days.

WKU trailed by 19 points with 1:17 left in the first half, but the Hilltoppers outscored Marshall 39-21 in the second half to reach a four-game winning streak for the second time this season.

The Hilltoppers held Marshall to 21 points in the second half, the fewest they’ve allowed in a half this season. WKU also limited the Thundering Herd to just two points in the final 8:34 of clock time.

“We just stayed locked in,” junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth said. “Like we’ve been saying, we’ve been in this type of situation before, and we had a lot of time. So, the game was definitely not over.”

WKU has now won six of its last seven games, and the Hilltoppers have also claimed three games in C-USA play after trailing by double digits at some point during each of those contests.

Head coach Rick Stansbury, who moved to 4-4 in his career against Marshall with a comeback win, said his team made the necessary changes and accepted coaching at halftime, which allowed WKU to outscore Marshall by 18 points in the second half en route to a hard-fought victory.

“Give our guys a lot of credit,” Stansbury said. “They made the adjustments. We had to make some adjustments on the fly, some things we haven’t done or worked on. Again, we found a way to give up 21 points in the second half and score 39. We jumped up and made shots.”

The Hilltoppers struggled in the first half, shooting 28.1% from the field and netting just 2-of-10 shots from beyond the arc. But WKU flipped the switch in the second half, finishing the game shooting 40% from the floor, while making six more 3-pointers in the second period.

WKU forced the Thundering Herd into 21 costly turnovers, which led to the Hilltoppers scoring 18 points off those Marshall miscues.

Freshman guard Jordan Rawls made his fifth consecutive start at the point guard spot for WKU, which allowed Hollingsworth to play shooting guard for the Hilltoppers.

The Lexington native slotted back into his natural position against Alabama-Birmingham on Jan. 9, and Hollingsworth has now finished each of his last five outings as the leading scorer for WKU.

Hollingsworth came away with 20 points, four steals, four rebounds, two assists and six turnovers in 36 minutes against the Thundering Herd.

Graduate guard Camron Justice made his return in a 80-63 win over Charlotte on Jan. 18, but he looked a little rusty and committed six turnovers in his 20:34 of playing time after battling a back injury.

The IUPUI transfer came off the bench once again against the Thundering Herd, but he was unable to tally a single point in 17 minutes of action.

“Yeah, it’s really good,” Hollingsworth said about having the upperclassman’s experience on the floor. “Cam is still trying to recover from the injury, but he’s coaching on the sideline. He’s letting me know what I should be doing and what moves to make. I really appreciate that.”

Redshirt junior forward Carson Williams and redshirt senior wing Jared Savage were the only other WKU players to record double-digit scoring totals against the Thundering Herd.

Williams scored 15 points, picked up six rebounds and recorded four steals, while Savage added 14 points, four rebounds a pair of blocks for WKU.

Despite losing a 19-point lead, Marshall outrebounded the undersized Hilltoppers 35-29 and finished with 16 points from its bench players while the WKU bench contributed zero.

Just like the Hilltoppers, Marshall had three players in double figures. Redshirt sophomore forward Iran Bennett led the Thundering Herd with 14 points in 28 minutes.

Freshman wing Marko Sarenac and junior guard Jarrod West both added 10 points in defeat.

Marshall won the opening tipoff and scored on its opening possession of the game when Sarenac drained a 3-pointer in the first 18 seconds.

The Hilltoppers started the game very slow, allowing the Thundering Herd to jump out a 7-0 lead when Sarenac converted a layup at the 17:01 mark.

Williams scored the first WKU points of the night at the 16:40 mark, cutting the Hilltoppers’ deficit to 7-2.

Savage had four blocks in back-to-back games coming into Wednesday’s contest, and the Bowling Green native recorded his first block against the Thundering Herd at the 15:02 mark.

Savage was rewarded on the other end with a 3-pointer, cutting the Marshall lead to 9-5 at the 14:43 mark.

Both teams struggled to maintain possession of the basketball in the opening 10 minutes, as Marshall turned the ball over seven times and the Hilltoppers turned the ball over five times.

The Hilltoppers continued to struggle early, as WKU went over four minutes without a field goal and allowed Marshall to take a 19-9 lead at the 9:13 mark.

Hollingsworth ended WKU’s scoreless streak by knocking down a jumper at the 7:03 mark, trimming the Thundering Herd lead to 21-13. But West scored on Marshall’s next possession to put the Thundering Herd up by double digits once again.

The Thundering Herd stretched their lead out to 28-17 when West knocked down a triple. West’s made 3-pointer forced Stansbury to ask for a quick 30-second timeout with 4:51 remaining in the opening half.

With just under five minutes left in the half, only Hollingsworth, Williams and Savage had recorded their names into the scoring column for WKU.

The Hilltoppers were only trailing 23-17 at the 5:45 mark, but Marshall quickly produced a 9-0 run to claim a 15-point margin at the 3:33 mark. 

Junior guard Josh Anderson ended the Marshall scoring run by going 1-of-2 from the free-throw line, cutting the Thundering Herd lead to 32-18 with 2:27 left.

Sarenac recorded his 7th point on the night, and then sophomore guard Taevion Kinsey scored his first bucket against WKU to grant Marshall a commanding 37-18 lead at the 1:17 mark.

Hollingsworth produced a personal 5-0 run in 16 seconds of clock time to cut the Marshall lead to 37-23 with 42 seconds to go.

Bennett reached double figures with just 23 seconds remaining in the half to give Marshall a 39-23 lead.

Anderson made his way back to the free-throw line with only two seconds remaining in the half, and he made both of his shots from the charity stripe to trail Marshall 39-25 at the half.

Anderson was one of just four Hilltoppers to score in the first half of action. The 6-foot-6-inch guard scored all three of his points from the free-throw line in the opening period.

Hollingsworth led the way for the Hilltoppers in the first half, scoring 13 points and snagging three steals while shooting 6-of-12 from the field.

Williams and Savage were the only other players to score in the first half for WKU. Williams finished the half with six points in only 12 minutes of action because of early foul trouble, while Savage posted his three points on a single 3-pointer early in the first half.

The Hilltoppers shot a disappointing 28.1% from the floor in the first half, while Marshall got an impressive 51.7% of shots to fall.

Seven different Marshall players were able to pencil their names into the scoring column in the first half, and five of those scorers had at least five or more points.

Bennett was the only Thundering Herd player to reach double-digit points in the first half with 10 points. Freshman center Goran Miladinovic added eight points off the bench for Marshall in the first half, but he failed to score in the second frame.

In the first half, Marshall outrebounded the Hilltoppers 23-15 and scored 20 points in the paint while WKU only scored 14 points in the paint.

Marshall’s bench players came into the contest averaging 16.8 points per game in C-USA play, and the Thundering Herd had already scored 13 bench points by the halftime break.

Rawls scored the opening points of the second half, as the Chattanooga, Tennessee, native converted a 3-pointer in the first 17 seconds.

On WKU’s next possession, Savage drained a 3-pointer to cut into the Marshall lead. In just 51 seconds of the second half, WKU produced a 6-0 run to trail the Thundering Herd 39-31.

Hollingsworth continued WKU’s early dominance in the second half by getting to the foul line and netting both of his shots at the stripe, making the score 39-33 at the 17:54 mark.

Hollingsworth reached the free-throw line again at the 17:33 mark, but he missed his first free-throw shot in 23 attempts. Hollingsworth made his second shot at the line, cutting the Marshall lead to just five points, 39-34.

By the first media timeout of the second half at the 15:35 mark, WKU had outscored the Thundering Herd 11-4 in the second frame. The Hilltoppers only trailed 43-36 after trailing by as many as 19 points with under two minutes to go in the first half.

After the media timeout, Savage knocked down a free-throw line jumper, cutting the Marshall lead to only 43-38 at the 15:20 mark.

But West swished a 3-pointer to push the Thundering Herd lead back to eight points at the 14:41 mark, 46-38.

Marshall took a 48-40 lead at the 13:32 mark, but Williams drained his first triple on the night to trim the Thundering Herd lead to 48-43 at the 13:08 mark.

After Williams’ made basket, WKU and Marshall traded baskets until Marshall produced a 5-0 run to stretch its lead back out to double digits, making the score 55-45 at the 11:09 mark.

But Anderson converted his first 3-pointer of the night to only give the Hilltoppers a 55-48 deficit at the 10:37 mark.

Savage reached double-digit points by knocking down a wide-open 3-pointer, cutting the Thundering Herd lead to just 55-51 at the 9:37 mark.

The Hilltoppers continued to chip away at the Marshal lead, as Williams was fouled at the 8:51 mark and converted both of his free-throw attempts to make the score 55-53.

WKU put on an 8-0 run after Williams’ made free throws, but redshirt junior forward Jannson Williams ended the Hilltopper run by netting a 3-pointer at the 8:35 mark to give Marshall a 58-53 advantage.

Williams scored again for the Hilltoppers and then Savage drained his fourth triple of the night to tie the score at 58-58 with 6:35 left to play in the contest.

Rawls gave WKU its first lead of the game at the 5:08 mark, as the freshman guard finished a layup to give the Hilltoppers a 60-58 advantage. 

Rawls scored again for the Hilltoppers at the 3:43 mark, pushing WKU’s narrow lead to 62-58 with a successful jumper.

Kinsey was quiet for most of the night, but he scored a layup at the 2:19 mark to end a scoreless streak of over six minutes and to trim the WKU lead to just 62-60.

The Hilltoppers went 3:24 of clock time without a single point, but Hollingsworth netted the front end of a one-and-one and successfully converted his second free throw soon after, giving the Hilltoppers a 64-60 advantage with 19 seconds left in the game.

WKU forced the Thundering Herd to go scoreless for the last 2:19 of clock time despite netting zero field goals in the last 3:43 of the contest, and the Hilltoppers were able to escape the Cam Henderson Center with a four-point road victory.

Following the win, the Hilltoppers will complete their two-game series with Marshall by welcoming the Thundering Herd to Bowling Green on Saturday night.

WKU hasn’t faced the same opponent in back-to-back regular-season games since VCU in 2011-12, and it’ll also be the first time the Hilltoppers have played a league foe consecutively in regular-season games since doing so with Middle Tennessee State way back in 1970-71.

Tipoff in Diddle Arena is set for 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 25.

Stadium will broadcast the game exclusively on Facebook.

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