The WKU men’s basketball team collected its second win of the Conference USA tournament after defeating the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles 70-59 in the semifinals.
The Hilltoppers beat the Golden Eagles for the third time this season, completing the season sweep.
Sophomore guard Josh Anderson led WKU in scoring with 18 points to go along with eight rebounds and three assists. Sophomore guard Taveion Hollingsworth only made five of 14 shots, but still registered 17 points and a couple rebounds. Freshman center Charles Bassey collected another double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds in addition to two blocks.
Tyree Griffin starred for Southern Miss with 19 points and four assists. Cortez Edwards was the only other Golden Eagle in double-digits with 10 points.
WKU dominated the boards (44-27) and made 24 free throws compared to just eight attempted free throws for the Golden Eagles. Southern Miss made 11 3-pointer to just four for the Hilltoppers.
Head coach Rick Stansbury knew the Hilltoppers must dominate these two areas in order to win the game. We beat them 44-27 on the back boards. They shoot eight free throws. We make 24. That tells you two things: we’re driving it to the block and throwing it to the block.”
“There’s two areas we had to win,” Stansbury said after the win. “We got to win the rebound war and we gotta win that free throw war.
After trailing by two at halftime, WKU put the clamps on the Southern Miss offense. The Golden Eagles shot a meager 31 percent compared to 50 percent for WKU.
Junior wing Jared Savage opened up the scoring with a 3-pointer for WKU. Kevin Holland responded with a jumper for Southern Miss and the Hilltoppers led 3-2 early.
Bassey got involved early with an early bucket. Tim Rowe knotted up the score at five with the first 3-pointer of the game for the Golden Eagles.
Rowe kept up his hot shooting with another jumper as Southern Miss had its first lead of the game.
The Golden Eagles started out hot from the field, making for of its first six shots. They held an early 9-5 lead with 16 minutes left in the first half.
Holland extended the Golden Eagles lead to seven with the team’s second 3-pointer. Savage stopped the run with a drive and bucket that cut the lead to five the next possession.
Anderson followed up Savage with his first bucket of the game plus a foul. WKU was within two with 14 minutes left in the half.
Griffin had his first bucket of the game to extend the lead to four. Senior guard Lamonte Bearden knocked in a 3-pointer to draw within one of Southern Miss, 14-13.
Bearden made a free throw to tie the game at 14.
Bearden had scored six straight points for the Hilltoppers as they took a two point lead over Southern Miss.
LaDavius Draine got the lead back for the Golden Eagles with his first 3-pointer of the game.
Edwards got in on the action with his first bucket of the game and all of the sudden Southern Miss was back up four.
Both teams hit a rough patch offensively, with Southern Miss on a three minute scoring drought and WKU went without a field goal for over four minutes.
Hollingsworth tied the score at 20 with an offensive rebound and putback with under six minutes left in the half before Anderson tipped in a miss to take back the lead for WKU.
Bearden kept up the WKU run with a bucket and foul off of a turnover. WKU was in the midst of an 8-0 run and was winning 24-20 at the final media timeout of the half. The senior point guard capped it off with a free throw to extend the lead to five.
Southern Miss broke a five minute scoring drought with a pair of free throws from Leonard Harper-Baker.
Griffin knocked in his first 3-pointer to get Southern Miss within two before Edwards tied the game at 27 with a bucket with a little over a minute left in the half.
Edwards hit a buzzer-beater shot to end the half and gave Southern Miss the lead 29-27.
Bearden led the way for WKU with nine first half points and a couple of rebounds. Savage added seven points and three rebounds. Anderson again struggled from the floor, but still managed five points, three assists, and three rebounds.
Edwards was the headliner for Southern Miss with six points on a perfect 3-3 shooting. Both Rowe, Holland, and Griffin had five points each and knocked in a 3-pointer.
Southern Miss was much more efficient from the floor, shooting 47.8 percent and 50 percent from three compared to just 34 percent and 25 percent from three for WKU. The Hilltoppers did dominate the boards 21-13.
Bassey tied the game immediately coming out of half with a bucket.
After a Harper-Baker lay-in, Anderson tied the game at 31 with a couple free throws.
Holland knocked in another 3-pointer for Southern Miss, but Anderson responded with a bucket to get the Hilltoppers within a point.
A pair of Edwards free throws extended the Golden Eagles’ lead to four.
Hollingsworth got a floater to go with a second left on the shot clock as the Hilltoppers stayed within three.
Griffin knocked in a 3-pointer to put the Golden Eagles up six with under 15 minutes remaining.
Anderson pulled off a highlight reel dunk to get WKU within two points before knocking in a free throw the next possession to cut the lead to one.
Anderson kept up his attacking spirit, getting back to the line, converting one of two to tie the game at 42.
WKU was on an 8-0 run when Anderson knocked in a jumper to give the Hilltoppers a two point lead at the second media timeout. The Golden Eagles were on a three minute scoring drought.
Griffin ended the drought with a long 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock that changed the lead yet again.
Anderson finally converted a pair of free throws to give the Hilltoppers a one point lead.
Southern Miss would not go away. Griffin got a bucket and a foul to put the Golden Eagles back on top.
Bassey put the Hilltoppers back in front with a bucket in the paint. Hollingsworth followed it up with his first 3-pointer to extend the lead to four.
Bassey muscled up another layup to put WKU up six and forced a Southern Miss timeout with under six minutes left to play. The Golden Eagles were only one of their last eight.
Draine knocked in his second 3-pointer and swung the momentum back to Southern Miss.
WKU led 56-51 at the final media timeout.
Hollingsworth hit another 3-pointer and forced another Southern Miss timeout. WKU led by eight.
Hollingsworth was dialed in down the stretch when his team needed him the most.
“In the first half, I didn’t shoot it too well,” Hollingsworth said after the game. “So in the second half, I knew I had to step up. My team needed me to step up, so I locked in on offense and do what I gotta do.”
Bassey grabbed a key offensive rebound to use more clock and then put the icing on the cake with a put back to make the WKU lead 10 points.
The Hilltoppers closed out the Golden Eagles 70-59.
WKU advances to the C-USA finals to take on Old Dominion on Saturday. The Monarchs defeated the Hilltoppers in the previous two matchups this season.
Bassey said that upcoming matchup will be tough and the squad must bring it in order to come out on top.
“We just want to win,” Bassey said after the victory. “The team we played tomorrow, we already played twice. So it’s going to be a good game. We have to play hard tomorrow.”
Tipoff is slated for 7:30 p.m.
Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow Alec on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie