Hilltoppers hope to learn from blown leads as C-USA play goes on

Rick Stansbury gives his team directions during WKU’s 72-66 win over Florida Atlantic Saturday in Diddle Arena. The win helped WKU to improve to 9-9 on the year. 

Alec Jessie

With five Conference USA games in the books, a troubling trend has emerged for the Hilltoppers: second-half implosions. Before Saturday’s victory over Florida Atlantic, WKU had blown leads of 15 points or more in three consecutive games.

The first collapse occurred against Old Dominion. The Monarchs came into the game with an upset win over 25th-ranked Syracuse at the Carrier Dome but dropped their first conference game at home to Marshall. The Hilltoppers got off to a dream start, finding themselves up 21 with 13:07 left in the first half. But ODU, led by senior guards B.J. Stith and Ahmad Caver, closed the gap to seven by the end of the first half.

ODU finally drew even with the Hilltoppers after a Stith dunk at the 11-minute mark. The Monarchs got their first lead of the game with nine minutes to go and never looked back, winning 69-66. The Hilltoppers’ 13 turnovers and 14 offensive rebounds allowed the comeback. The Monarch bench outscored WKU’s 24-2, as well.

After the loss, head coach Rick Stansbury emphasized that his team cannot get comfortable while leading.

“You go up by 20, we can’t relax,”Stansbury said. “Twenty points mean very little in today’s basketball.”

Sophomore guard Josh Anderson attributed the comeback to a lack of focus on the defensive end.

“Even when we got up, we knew they were going to come back,” Anderson said. “So, we had to tighten up on defense, and I feel like we did a poor job on that.”

A Jan. 12 trip to Marshall offered WKU a chance to get back on track, but more of the same occurred. WKU went on a 21-8 run and at one point led by 15, and the Hilltoppers maintained an 11-point lead heading into intermission.

WKU was unable to continue its solid play in the second half. The Hilltoppers scored an abysmal 27 second-half points. Marshall squeaked out a 70-69 win.

Stansbury reiterated that his team must play with energy and effort the entire game.

“We’ve got to find ways to be able to do some things we do for 40 minutes,” Stansbury said. “Can’t do it for 30 minutes on the road against good teams. Can’t do it for 35 minutes. Got to be able to do it for 40 minutes on the road, and that’s where we haven’t been as good as we need to be to beat a really good team like Marshall.”

Sophomore guard Taveion Hollingsworth admitted the team did more relaxing with the big lead in the second half.

“It was us,” Hollingsworth said. “Give them credit, they were tough in the second half. But we relaxed a little bit, and it really got them going.”

In the next game, WKU squared off with Florida International, a matchup in which ESPN’s BPI metric gave the Hilltoppers an 89 percent chance of winning. For a time, it seemed the ball would finally roll WKU’s way.

The Hilltoppers made their move at the end of the first half. WKU trailed 24-20 with under eight minutes to go in the half when the offense came alive. The Hilltoppers went on a 23-10 run that put them up nine at the break.

The collapse began with Anderson fouling a 3-point shooter, and it snowballed from there, as FIU rallied for a 77-76 win. WKU coughed the basketball up 11 times in the second half and only had six assists and was outscored 33-16 over the final 11 minutes of action.

Stansbury continued to harp on the theme of his team’s inability to finish games after the loss.

“We’ve talked about this three times in a row,” Stansbury said. “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.”

The Hilltoppers were finally able to shake off the horrid second-half performances this past Saturday. In a reversal of roles, WKU found itself down 26-14 to FAU. The Hilltoppers shook off the bad start and were able to tie the game at 40 while holding the Owls scoreless for about four minutes of game action to earn their second C-USA win, 72-66.

WKU forced 10 turnovers and made its mark at the line, going 16-of-17 from the free-throw line in the second half.

As opposed to the previous three losses, Stansbury said he saw composure from his squad.

“I didn’t see any panic from our guys,” Stansbury said. “I liked the look in our guys’ eyes. I like the look of our team. Sometimes it takes some hard lessons to learn from.”

Despite being just a few plays away from a 5-0 start in C-USA, the Hilltoppers find themselves 2-3 and trying to claw back up the standings. At the time of publication, the Hilltoppers had yet to play their Monday night game against Marshall. Stansbury will hope to use the tough losses as teaching moments for his young team with the next opportunity taking place Thursday at Southern Mississippi.

Men’s basketball reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow Alec on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie.