Hilltoppers pick up largest road win at MTSU since 2009, move to 3-1 in C-USA play

Redshirt junior guard Jared Savage (2) shoots a shot during WKU’s 71-63 win over Middle Tennessee State on Thursday, Feb 14 at Diddle Arena.

Elliott Wells

The WKU men’s basketball team (10-6, 3-1 C-USA) capped its first road swing in Conference USA play with a flashy victory on Saturday night, as the Hilltoppers bludgeoned archrival Middle Tennessee State (4-13, 0-4 C-USA) in a 69-53 blowout win in the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Although WKU led the all-time series against MTSU by a 94-43 margin, the Blue Raiders had won eight of the last 10 contests and seven of the last eight meetings in Murfreesboro.

The Hilltoppers earned their first win in the Murphy Center under head coach Rick Stansbury, defeating MTSU there for the first time since a 78-72 road win on Feb. 25, 2016.

MTSU had lost seven straight games and 12 of its last 13 outings prior to the rivalry contest, and Stansbury, who came into Saturday’s game with a 1-4 career mark against the Blue Raiders, handed his opposition its worst home loss against WKU since Feb. 28, 2009.

“I’m awfully proud of our players,” Stansbury said. “Our players are fighting several things right now. You know, we come into this game playing without Cam Justice for sure, not a lot of numbers, not a lot of bodies. For our guys to bounce back up from Thursday night against a very good, capable Middle Tennessee team — forget their record, they’re going to beat a lot of people.”

The Hilltoppers shot 64% from the floor in the first half, but finished the night shooting 48%. For the second time in C-USA play, the Hilltoppers controlled the glass by a very slim margin.

WKU outrebounded the Blue Raiders 35-34 while controlling the paint. The Hilltoppers scored 38 points inside compared to only 26 points in the painted area by MTSU.

Despite the Blue Raiders struggling on both ends of the floor in the first half, MTSU was able to outscore the Hilltoppers 29-27 in the second half. Throughout the contest, the Blue Raiders had nine assists compared to only seven from WKU.

Freshman guard Jordan Rawls received his second career start for WKU in place of injured graduate guard Camron Justice.

Justice was limited to just eight minutes in a 72-62 loss against Alabama-Birmingham on Thursday night, but the IUPUI transfer missed his first game of the season against the Blue Raiders while dealing with a back injury he sustained while lifting weights earlier this week.

During the radio broadcast, Stansbury said Justice will undergo an MRI in the upcoming days.

The Hilltoppers had three different players reach double-digit scoring outputs, led by junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth’s 18 points. The Lexington native also added five rebounds, three steals and two assists to his stat line in 36 total minutes.

“Getting 18 and the win was good,” Hollingsworth said. “The entire team played good. You know, it just felt different than the last game. Everybody was talking, everyone felt like we were together. Like I said, all we need to do is lean on each other and we’ll be alright.”

Joining Hollingsworth in double figures was junior guard Josh Anderson with 15 points and six rebounds on 5-of-6 shooting from the free-throw line. Redshirt junior forward Carson Williams also chipped in 14 points and eight rebounds despite having a team-high five turnovers.

After the Hilltopper bench combined for 0 points against UAB, Stansbury called upon freshman forward Isiah Cozart for the first time since late November. He took advantage of his time, as the newcomer scored two points and recorded four rebounds in nine minutes of action.

Redshirt freshman Jeremiah Gambrell also added great minutes off the bench, as the guard finished with a career-high seven points and six rebounds on three made field goals in 19 minutes played.

MTSU also had three players reach double-digit scoring numbers despite trailing for almost the entire contest. Senior forward Reggie Scurry led the Blue Raiders with a team-high 15 points, 13 of which came in the second half of play.

Junior guard C.J. Jones and sophomore guard Jayce Johnson each added 13 points apiece for the struggling Blue Raiders.

Scurry won the opening tipoff for MTSU and was rewarded with a basket just 18 seconds into the game, scoring with a left-handed hook shot over Williams.

Williams received an entry pass into the paint at the 19:07 mark, and he scored WKU’s first points of the contest to tie the game at 2-2.

WKU took its first lead of the game at the 17:33 mark when junior guard Josh Anderson drove into the lane and knocked down an off-balance jumper.

MTSU recaptured the lead just 16 seconds later when Johnson converted his first 3-pointer of the season.

The Hilltoppers started the game by making 4 of their first 6 shots from the field, with all of those makes coming on successful layup attempts. Hollingsworth then converted an old-fashioned three-point play, giving WKU a 9-5 advantage at the 16:15 mark.

WKU attacked the glass early into the game, as the Hilltoppers recorded two offensive rebounds and five second-chance points after redshirt senior wing Jared Savage corralled a rebound and scored his first points of the night at the 15:09 mark to give WKU an early 11-7 lead.

Cozart checked into the game at the 12:28 mark, playing his first minutes since a non-conference game against Illinois State in the Virgin Islands on Nov. 23.

MTSU went over two minutes without scoring until Jones scored off an in-bound play and then drained a 3-pointer on the next possession to cut the WKU lead to 13-12 at the 13:11 mark. 

Cozart scored the first C-USA points of his career at the 12:10 mark when Savage found the first-year player running inside for a ferocious dunk. 

After playing the full 40 minutes against UAB on Thursday, Rawls checked out for the first time at the 11:22 mark and gave Hollingsworth the chance to play point guard.

A Williams layup and a pair of free throws by Anderson gave WKU a 19-12 lead at the 10:31 mark, while WKU forced MTSU into another scoring drought, this time over 4:30 minutes. 

WKU used its defensive pressure to produce an 11-0 run and double MTSU up on the scoreboard, taking a 24-12 advantage at the 8:37 mark.

Savage and Hollingsworth knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers at the 6:14 mark, expanding the WKU lead to its largest at the time, 32-14. 

Hollingsworth’s 3-pointer caused MTSU head coach Nick McDevitt to call a timeout. Right after the timeout, Hollingsworth stole the ball and found Anderson for a slam dunk.

The Hilltoppers held a 34-14 advantage at the 5:58 mark, as WKU went on a 21-2 run over an eight minute period. But Johnson put a stop to the Hilltopper scoring run when he scored a right-handed layup at the 3:30 mark.

After MSTU failed to reach the free-throw line for the first 17:22 of the contest, Johnson was fouled and converted both of his foul shots to trim the WKU lead to 36-18.

Hollingsworth knocked down both of his free throws to push the Hilltopper lead back to 20 points, but Jones drained a 3-pointer at the 2:13 mark to cut his team’s deficit to 38-21.

Anderson stayed perfect from the floor in the first half, as he scored a 15-foot jumper with 35 seconds and gave the Hilltoppers a 21-point advantage, their largest lead of the half.

Jones knocked down his third 3-pointer of the half with 25 seconds remaining, allowing the Blue Raiders to trail the Hilltoppers 42-24 at the intermission.

Despite MTSU struggling offensively in the first half — shooting only 32.1% from the floor — Jones led the Blue Raiders with 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting while playing the entire 20 minutes of the opening half of play.

WKU only allowed four Blue Raider players to pencil their names into the scoring column in the first half, as the Hilltoppers turned MTSU over nine times, which allowed WKU to score 14 points off turnovers. 

The Hilltoppers shot an impressive 64% from the floor, as seven different Hilltopper players saw  action in the first half. Each of those players scored at least two points, and four different WKU players scored three or more field goals in the first period.

Anderson was among the four WKU players to score three or more field goals in the first half, as the 6-foot-6-inch guard shot 4 for 4 from the floor to score 12 points.

Anderson also played aggressive in the first half, getting to the free-throw line and making 4-of-6 shots from the line in 18 minutes of play.

Hollingworth followed Anderson with 11 first-half points and four rebounds in 20 minutes of action. Williams led the Hilltoppers with five rebounds in the first half, while also scoring six points in 16 minutes.

Williams and the Hilltoppers outrebounded the Blue Raiders in the first half, 19-12.

WKU and MTSU both missed their first shots of the second half before Williams converted a pair of foul shots from the charity stripe at the 18:18 mark.

The Blue Raiders scored their first points of the second half at the 17:33 mark when Savage committed a goaltending violation on a shot by Johnson. Johnson scored again at the 16:56 mark, cutting the WKU lead to 44-28.

Johnson then produced a personal 6-0 scoring run for the Blue Raiders, trimming the Hilltopper advantage to just 44-30. But Hollingsworth banked in a shot at the 15:53 mark, scoring WKU’s first field goal of the second half.

After the Hilltoppers started the first half 1 for 5 from the floor, Williams recorded WKU’s second field goal of the half at the 15:02 mark to give his squad a 48-30 advantage.

Williams returned to the free-throw line for the second time of the half and stayed perfect from the line, as the Owenton native swished both of his foul shot to expand the WKU lead to 50-31.

The Blue Raiders went through another rough patch — going four minutes without a made field goal — but Scurry scored a layup at the 12:50 mark and cut the WKU lead to 50-33.

Williams increased the Hilltoppers’ advantage back to 21 points, but redshirt junior Jo’Vontae Millner scored his first points of the night and trimmed the WKU lead to 54-35.

After Williams scored his 14th point of the night, WKU scored five points in 58 seconds to maintain a 59-37 lead at the 9:29 mark.

MTSU outscored the Hilltoppers 9-8 in the opening 7:10 of the second half, but WKU jumped out to its largest lead of the game at the 7:26 mark when Hollingsworth scored another layup and gave WKU a 61-39 lead.

Gambrell reached his career-high of seven points by swishing a 3-pointer on a pass from Rawls. The redshirt freshman guard’s made basket gave WKU a 64-39 lead with 6:11 left to play.

MTSU mounted a 5-0 run after Scurry and junior guard Donovan Sims scored a pair of baskets to chip away at WKU’s 64-44 lead with 5:05 remaining.

The Blue Raiders knocked down their second 3-pointer of the half when freshman guard Eli Lawrence netted a deep ball at the 4:18 mark and cut the WKU lead to 66-47.

Scurry finished the game off for MTSU with a personal 4-0 scoring run at the charity stripe, but the Hilltoppers maintained their sizable lead and skated to a 16-point road win.

Following the win, the Hilltoppers will return home before continuing C-USA play against Old Dominion (6-10, 2-1 C-USA) next week.

The Monarchs are 1-5 on the road this season, including a 53-47 road loss against Charlotte (9-5, 3-0 C-USA) on Saturday evening.

Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. on Jan. 16. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that WKU handed MTSU its most lopsided home loss against WKU since 1967. The Hilltoppers defeated MTSU 68-49 in 2009, a larger margin of victory than this game. The article has since been corrected. The Herald regrets the error.

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