Hilltoppers’ season of high expectations ends without NIT bid

Sophomore guard Josh Anderson wipes the sweat of his face on his way to the locker room as Old Dominion celebrates its C-USA Tournament Championship at the Ford Center at The Star March 16 in Frisco, Texas. Anderson shot 11 points, had 4 steals, 2 blocks and 6 rebounds in the 62-56 loss. [HERALD/ Joseph Barkoff]

Alec Jessie

The WKU men’s basketball team saw its season come to a close on Saturday, capping off a roller coaster year. Old Dominion defeated the Hilltoppers on Saturday night for the third time of the campaign, 62-56.

Head coach Rick Stansbury said lack of experience and toughness were major pitfalls for his team.

“We knew we were a new team,” Stansbury said after Saturday’s defeat. “We need some experience. We need to add some toughness from last year’s team. We didn’t have a lot of depth, leadership or toughness that we depended on in some areas.”

Inconsistency defined the 2018-19 season for WKU. For every major high, there was an equal low, with the year ending in heartbreak.

High expectations mounted for WKU as the season was on the horizon.

In October, coaches within the conference picked the Hilltoppers to finish first in Conference USA for the first time since it had joined the league. Sophomore guard Taveion Hollingsworth and graduate transfer Desean Murray were picked as two of 11 players named to the C-USA Preseason All-Conference Team.

A couple weeks before the first game, issues arose within the program. Hollingsworth and Murray were both cited for possession of marijuana. Sophomore guard Josh Anderson was arrested on Halloween night and was charged with disorderly conduct.

Stansbury said these mishaps hurt him more than anything.

“I’m more hurt than upset, if that makes sense,” Stansbury said after an exhibition against Kentucky Wesleyan. “Disappointed, because we have good people. But you’ve got to make the right decisions. I’m hurt and disappointed at some of those decisions that have been made.”

Hollingsworth and Anderson sat out exhibition games, while Murray missed the season opener against 25th-ranked Washington.

The first matchup of the season against the Huskies served as a bad omen for the Hilltoppers going forward. WKU dominated the first half of play, leading 36-27. But the Huskies punched back, outscoring the Hilltoppers 46-19 in the second half en route to a 73-55 victory.

WKU was all over the place in non-conference play. It recorded thrilling victories over Power 5 programs such as West Virginia, Arkansas and then-15th-ranked Wisconsin but also had its fair share of clunkers, including losses to Indiana State, Troy and Missouri State.

“We always talk about how that first four minutes of the second half we don’t start well,” junior wing Jared Savage said on Dec. 16 after losing to Troy. “It showed in this game. They got a lead, and we never recovered from that.”

More adversity hit the Hilltoppers off the court in December. Murray elected to leave the program to pursue professional opportunities, and sophomore forward Marek Nelson was arrested and charged with a DUI on Dec. 23. Nelson was suspended indefinitely as a result.

While off-the-court issues took some players out of the fold, the Hilltoppers would take in a key midseason addition. Senior point guard Lamonte Bearden returned to the team in December after missing the first nine regular-season games due to being ruled academically ineligible.

“It gives us a little more flexibility out there to slide some people around a little bit,” Stansbury said prior to Bearden’s return. “It makes us a little more skilled. It helps solve some of those problems.”

Even short-handed, WKU pulled together its best win of the season over 15th-ranked Wisconsin in Diddle Arena in front of a sellout crowd. The Hilltoppers erased a four-point halftime deficit to come back and win 83-76.

“Everyone contributed,” Hollingsworth said after the win. “Everyone sat down on their man, like coach said. Our defense created our offense, so we did what we needed to do.”

WKU looked to take the momentum into conference play but to no avail. The Hilltoppers began C-USA play just 1-3, losing three consecutive games to Old Dominion, Marshall, and Florida International in which it had at least a 15-point lead at some point during the contest.

“We’ve talked about this three times in a row,” Stansbury said after the third-straight loss. “We have to figure out ways to finish games. Winning and losing is a fine line. You have to understand, we you get up in the second half, you have to put your foot on someone’s throat.”

Just as quickly as it went cold, WKU caught fire. The Hilltoppers used a two-game homestand to get right and were surging in the C-USA standings. The Hilltoppers won eight of nine games, with the only loss coming at Louisiana Tech.
Even when Stansbury missed three games due to back surgery, WKU didn’t miss a beat.

“We just try to stay together,” Bearden said after a double-overtime win over Rice. “Coach’s back is a little messed up right now, but we just try to play together and play for him, and that gives us a spark.”

WKU would hit some bumps in the road, losing three of its last five games. Even with the uninspiring close to the regular season, the Hilltoppers entered the conference tournament as the second seed, the highest they’d been seeded in the conference tournament since joining C-USA.

WKU used stellar defense to shut down North Texas and Southern Mississippi in the quarterfinals and semifinals. Neither team scored more than 60 points or shot over 40 percent from the floor.

That left only WKU and ODU for one spot in the NCAA Tournament. The Monarchs had defeated the Hilltoppers twice during the regular season, both of which occurred in Norfolk, Virginia.
 WKU hung tough with the regular-season champions for most of the game but ultimately came up short, losing 62-56.

Even through all the highs and lows, Savage said he is happy to be a part of this group.

“We had a lot of ups and downs this season,” Savage said after the loss. “We overcame all different kinds of adversity. I think we grew as a family in the locker room. I’m just glad that those guys are my teammates.”

WKU did not receive a bid to participate in the National Invitational Tournament Sunday night, officially bringing its season to a close.

Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow Alec on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie.