Hilltoppers down Saint Mary’s, get back to .500

WKU Guard Josh Anderson (4) shoots for two as he is defended by Marshall Forward Ajdin Penava (11) during the Hilltoppers 67-66 loss in the championship game of the Conference USA tournament against Marshall University on Saturday March 10, 2018 at The Star in Frisco, Tx.

Matt Stahl

Following a two-game skid which included losses to Troy and Belmont, the Hilltoppers came out on top against a tough Saint Mary’s team, led by late offense from sophomore forward Josh Anderson and a defense that shut down all but a few of the Gaels.

“Saint Mary’s is a really good basketball team,” WKU head coach Rick Stansbury said after the game. “I thought the best team we’d played all season coming in to this thing. After playing them, I’m not going to say they’re not.”

The Hilltoppers took the momentum early, starting the game with a 7-2 lead at the first timeout, helped in part by a layup from freshman guard Dalano Banton, who earned his third ever start at point guard as redshirt senior Lamonte Bearden was dealing with an injury.

“To just come in and make the offense fluid, that helped us a lot,” Banton said of his goals for the game. “To stick my man on defense and help us create runs because we’re a transition team.”

After the Hilltoppers brought their lead to 9-2, the Gaels began to play some offense, bringing the score to within two points. But WKU wasn’t stifled offensively, as the Hilltoppers were aided by 3-pointers from Savage and Banton.

WKU kept the lead around five for much of the first half but went on a long scoring drought later in the first, going more than 2:30 without a bucket before freshman center Charles Bassey broke through with a 3-pointer. After several empty possessions by both teams, sophomore guard Taveion Hollingsworth made his first basket of the game to make the score 25-19 at the 4:30 mark of the first half.

The momentum continued for WKU with a 3-pointer by sophomore forward Marek Nelson before Banton went the length of the floor to lay it in and give the Hilltoppers a 13-point lead. Up until the 21-second mark of the first half, only two players had scored for the Gaels. 

Saint Mary’s closed the lead a little before the half, with junior guard Tanner Krebs throwing down a dunk at the buzzer. The teams went to the locker rooms with the Hilltoppers leading 34-27.

When the second half opened, Savage wasted no time bringing the WKU lead back up to 10 points with a corner 3-pointer. Banton added a layup on the next possession to help the Hilltoppers grab momentum.

The Gaels came galloping back, cutting it to 41-34 with 16:00 left. Bassey got into foul trouble early in the half for WKU and the Hilltoppers seemingly had no answer for sophomore forward Malik Fitts, who finished with 26 points.

The Hilltoppers went ice cold midway through the second half, going on a long scoring drought and allowing the Gaels to cut the lead down to three points.

After they broke the cold stretch, Anderson took control, quickly hitting a 3-pointer, bringing the crowd to their feet with a rim rattling dunk and making a layup to push WKU’s lead to 65-56 with 3:53 remaining. Anderson finished with a team-leading 18 points.

“The game was kind of close,” Anderson said postgame. “We just locked in and my plays just happened to happen.”

The Hilltoppers carried the lead into the final minute of the game, where a 6-0 Sain’t Mary’s run brought the score within three. But a buzzer beater shot was no good and WKU held on for the 71-68 win.

The Hilltoppers improved to 6-6 on the season and will be back in action at 4:30 p.m. on Friday in Diddle Arena against No. 16 Wisconsin.

Sports Editor Matt Stahl can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at@mattstahl97.