Hilltoppers lose last home game to UTSA in overtime

Senior guard Lamonte Bearden drives hard through traffic and a stingy UTSA defense in the last home game of the season in Diddle Arena on March 6. Bearden accumulated 3 steals and 17 points in the Hilltoppers’ 76-81 loss.

Drake Kizer

WKU men’s basketball ­­team stumbled against Texas San-Antonio (16-13, 10-6 C-USA) on Wednesday evening, concluding Conference USA bonus play and the regular season with an 81-76 overtime loss that snapped a two-game winning streak.

After scoring only five points in the first half, sophomore guard Jhivvan Jackson exploded for UTSA, finishing the game with a game-high 29 points.

“He just took the game over,” WKU head coach Rick Stansbury said after the game. “And when a guy like that, can shoot it and drive it and do things he does, he gets in the zone, you know, that’s not good and he took it over, give them credit.”

The Hilltoppers won the tip thanks to the long arms of freshman center Charles Bassey, but the advantage was short lived, as the Roadrunners began the contest on a 6-0 run.

A layup from Bassey finally put WKU on the board at the 18:02 mark, but UTSA answered with a jumper of its own, making the score 8-2. The Hilltoppers then put together a quick 5-0 run, capped off by a 3-pointer from sophomore forward Marek Nelson, who returned to the starting lineup for the first time since Dec. 22.

“I mean, I was more excited than anything, just to be able to come back and play with my brothers,” Nelson said. “You know, so I was just focused on going out there and playing as hard as I can and then I was ready to shoot and it went in.”

The Roadrunners responded with a 3-pointer, taking an 11-7 lead. From there, WKU began a 7-0 run, but WKU’s fortunes quickly turned sour, as UTSA was awarded two shots and the ball following a technical foul call on Stansbury.

After making both foul shots, the Roadrunners drilled a 3-pointer on their extra possession, grabbing a 16-14 lead. UTSA then mounted a 12-2 run that was uninterrupted until Bearden drilled a fastbreak layup at the 9:06 mark.

WKU then began to heat up, as both Bearden and redshirt junior wing Jared Savage drilled shots from beyond the arc with around eight minutes to play. Junior guard Giovanni De Nicolao mounted a solo 4-0 run to put UTSA back in front, 31-25.

The Hilltoppers got back to within one at the 5:00 mark, but UTSA answered with yet another 3-pointer. The Roadrunners finished the game 13-of-27 from deep.

Bearden and Hollingsworth both missed the front end of two different opportunities at the foul stripe, but the duo’s two combined makes allowed Bassey to tie the game 34-34 following an emphatic slam dunk with 2:45 remaining in the half.

Both squads sank two more foul shots down the stretch, which kept WKU and UTSA tied at the halftime break, 36-36. Bearden led WKU in both points and assists at the half, with 12 and five, respectively.

Following the halftime break, the Roadrunners broke the stalemate with a jumper. WKU briefly took the lead thanks to a 3-pointer from Savage, but UTSA answered him with a 5-0 run kicked off by a 3-pointer.

Nelson managed to tie the game 43-43, while sophomore wing Josh Anderson was able to knot the game at 47-47 shortly thereafter. But extended scoring runs from UTSA continued to put the Hilltoppers back into any holes they could dig themselves out of.

At the third media timeout, UTSA had not scored in the last 2:26 and WKU had not registered a field goal in the last 3:00. Four combined foul shots from Bassey and Anderson were enough to keep the Hilltoppers within striking distance, 55-53.

UTSA extended its lead to 59-55 at the stripe with 5:44 left to play, but the Hilltoppers were not done yet. Savage drilled a 3-pointer, which set up Bassey to give WKU the lead on a thunderous dunk about a minute later, 60-59.

A three-point shootout commenced, as 3-pointers went through the net on three consecutive possessions between both squads. UTSA nailed one, then Savage, then the Roadrunners again, making the score 65-63 at the end of the flurry.

Savage gave WKU a two-point lead at the charity stripe with 1:12 left in regulation. Jackson gave the Roadrunners a 68-67 lead on a deep 3-pointer with 20 seconds remaining. Bearden went 1-for-2 from the charity stripe with a chance to win the game in regulation, knotting the score at the end of 40 minutes, 68-68.

Bassey, who finished with a team-high 21 points and 11 rebounds for WKU, scored six of the Hilltoppers’ eight points in overtime, but Jackson’s continued dominance offensively sank WKU, as the Puerto Rican scored nine of UTSA’s 13 points.

The season-ending loss coincided with senior night and despite the loss, WKU’s lone senior said his last game in Diddle Arena wasn’t tainted.

“It was great, it still was great,” Bearden said. “We had a great crowd tonight; the crowd was in it and I think our team played pretty hard for the most part. So, you can’t be mad at them for that. But it was a good senior night even though we lost and I appreciate everybody for that.”

The loss moved WKU to 18-13 on the season, 11-7 in C-USA. The Hilltoppers, who have already clinched a first-round bye, will be back in action on March 14 in Frisco, Texas, taking part in the quarterfinals of the C-USA tournament.

Reporter Drake Kizer can be reached at 270-745-2653 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @drakekizer_.