Hilltopper bench shines in exhibition win over D-II opponent Kentucky Wesleyan

WKU guard Jordan Rawls (3) shoots the floater over Arkansas guard Jalen Harris (5). The Hilltoppers defeated the Razorbacks 86 – 79 in Diddle Arena on Saturday, December 7, 2019.

Elliott Wells

The WKU men’s basketball team (7-3) took a break from regular season action for an in-season exhibition contest against Division II Kentucky Wesleyan (3-6) on Tuesday in Diddle Arena, and the Hilltoppers picked up a 75-53 win in the 37th Annual BB&T Classic.

The Hilltoppers started the contest on a demanding 14-0 run and never looked back, leading for 39:49 of clock time and tallying 21 assists on 30 field goals made.

WKU shot 47% from the field and 32% from beyond the arc on 9-of-28 shooting, and also won the rebounding battle, 41-32.

Kentucky Wesleyan cut their deficit to single digits several times throughout the contest, but the Panthers couldn’t overcome seven blocks and 40 points in the paint from WKU.

“It was a good time to have one of these games after a long layoff,” head coach Rick Stansbury said. “No disrespect to Kentucky Wesleyan, but we’re not going to have many more games like that, and it starts Saturday when we go to Rhode Island.”

Although the exhibition won’t count toward the official overall record of either participating team, the 22-point victory was a chance for WKU to hit the reset button on its 2019-20 campaign.

After sophomore center Charles Bassey suffered a season-ending injury against Arkansas on Dec. 7 and senior guard Kenny Cooper had his request for immediate eligibility denied on Dec. 10, the Hilltoppers had about 10 days to address their deficiencies.

WKU used its extra practice time to experiment with many new lineups and rotations, eventually settling on a much smaller starting five that features four guards and a forward — junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth, graduate guard Camron Justice, senior wing Jared Savage, junior guard Josh Anderson and redshirt junior forward Carson Williams.

Prior to the Hilltoppers’ exhibition against Kentucky Wesleyan, Savage said the team’s new four-guard lineup was “going to have to step up.”

“Nothing for us changes,” Savage said on Monday. “I mean, [losing Bassey and Cooper] is a big blow to us, but our goals are the same. We still want to accomplish the things we said we wanted to at the beginning of the year. It’s the next man up mentality and we’ve still got a season to play, so we’ve got to be ready to play.” 

Williams and Justice scored a team-high 13 points against the Panthers, and Williams also led WKU with nine rebounds in 25:11 of action. Hollingsworth had a team-high six assists and two steals, while Savage seven points, seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks.

Anderson found his way back into the starting lineup after starting 31 games across his first two seasons on the Hill. But the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native wasn’t able to replicate the energy he’d brought to the floor this season during his 21:55 of playing time, logging negligible stats.

Stansbury said on Monday that WKU would “have to figure out ways” to score without Bassey, but he affirmed his confidence in “the guys in that locker room” and said the new-look Hilltoppers would still have “multiple guys who can go score points.”

“Like I’ve said many times, we’re not going to make no excuses,” Stansbury said. “Hey, there’s nobody feeling sorry for you, you know, a lot of people, unfortunately, like to see that. But again, our goals haven’t changed. I’ve got a lot of confidence in those guys in the locker room. Again, our margin for error just got thinner. Nothing else has changed.”

The fourth-year head coach turned to a trio of bench players to play meaningful minutes and help the Hilltoppers establish a new identity against the Panthers — freshman guard Jordan Rawls, redshirt freshman guard Jeremiah Gambrell and senior forward Matt Horton.

Stansbury mixed Rawls, Horton and Gambrell in with his new starting five, creating a variety of looks that WKU hasn’t used yet this season, but could employ heavily in the future.

“Some other guys off the bench have to step up and play bigger roles,” Stansbury said on Monday. “No question, Rawls was already playing minutes, it opens up for that next perimeter guy. I’ve been wanting to get [Jeremiah] in the game anyway. It’s unfortunate we have to do it this way, but I’ve been wanting to get Jeremiah in these games.”

WKU had 34 total points off the bench, led by Gambrell, who scored 11 points and knocked down three 3-pointers in 22:22 of game action. Prior to the exhibition contest, Gambrell had played 29 total minutes in seven regular season games and scored just 13 points.

Gambrell stood out in the first half, as he scored eight points and dished out a couple of assists in nine minutes of action. He drained his second 3-pointer of the night at the 4:38 mark and found Horton for a monster finish inside on the game’s next possession.

“I thought it was great,” Gambrell said. “You know, for the first time finally playing a lot into the flow and everything. It was kind of different because last year I didn’t get to play at all, so right now I’m trying to get back to how I was and perform.”

Justice said he was “impressed” with Gambrell, and he added the rest of the WKU bench will also “be ready” to make meaningful contributions in the future.

“It’s not easy doing what Jeremiah has done,” Justice said. “But he’s stuck in there and he’s had a great attitude about it. When his name was called, he played well and I was impressed with him, but that’s one game and we have a whole year to go.”

Horton also gave WKU solid minutes off the bench, scoring 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field and grabbing four rebounds in 13:04 played.

Stansbury said the 6-foot-11-inch big man can help ease the burden of losing Bassey because of his ability to play defense and post up with his back to the basket.

“I thought Matt Horton had a presence in there, offensively and defensively, which is good,” Stansbury said. “He gave us a post presence with some size. We always knew he could run the floor. He’s a guy defensively that has a chance to play one-on-one in that post and challenge a shot.”

Rawls added 10 points and six assists off the bench as the team’s new sixth man, slotting nicely into the role Anderson had played for most of the season before Bassey’s injury.

WKU put together a 17-2 run late in the contest against Kentucky Wesleyan, which included a Hollingworth pass that found Rawls at the top of the key for a wide-open 3-pointer and gave the Hilltoppers a 59-40 lead at the 11:54 mark.

Freshman forward Isaiah Cozart, another player who projects to see a much larger role for the Hilltoppers moving forward, made his first appearance of the night with 6:13 left and blocked a shot in his first defensive possession.

“We’ll continue to get better,” Stansbury said. “Like I said, it was a good game at this point to have this kind of game and there’s positive things to take from it. First off, that bench, I like that bench, the way they all performed.”

Following the exhibition win, WKU will get a few days off before playing another game that will officially count toward its overall record.

The Hilltoppers will travel to Kingston, Rhode Island, to meet first-time opponent Rhode Island (6-3) on Saturday afternoon.

The Rams have picked up some quality wins so far this season, including a 93-79 home win over Power 5 Alabama (4-5) on Nov. 15 and a 75-61 home win against Providence (6-5) on Dec. 6, which was Rhode Island’s last outing before playing the Hilltoppers.

“Right now, we’re just trying to take baby steps,” Justice said. “One day at a time. Get better each and every day missing a key piece of what we expected to be there all year long. Unfortunately, things go the way they did, but just take baby steps every single day.”

Tipoff in the Ryan Center is set for 1 p.m. on Dec. 21.

The game will be streamed live for ESPN+ subscribers.

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