Hilltoppers use strong second half to stun No. 15 Wisconsin

Charles Bassey (23) embraces head coach Rick Stansbury after defeating 15th-ranked Wisconsin in Diddle Arena Dec. 29 in Bowling Green.

Jeremy Chisenhall

Last year’s heartbreak didn’t cloud the vision of this year’s WKU team, as the Hilltoppers pulled off an 83-76 upset over No. 15 Wisconsin thanks to a hot-shooting second half on Saturday.

The Hilltoppers managed to stay within striking distance of the Badgers throughout the first half, but took over in the second half, shooting 68 percent from the field and 57 percent from 3-point range en route to racking up 53 points in the final 20 minutes. WKU’s 83 points were the most UW has allowed this season.

“After that first timeout, we looked each other in the eye, and we said ‘We’re better than them,’” WKU head coach Rick Stansbury said. “We believed that, and we played from that point on. We had them in the hole.”

The Hilltoppers were led by freshman guard Dalano Banton, who finished just two points short of a triple-double with eight points, 10 assists and 13 rebounds. Sophomore guard Taveion Hollingsworth led the team in scoring with 22 points—14 of which came in the second half—on 9-of-15 shooting.

Freshman center Charles Bassey continued his run of success against other top big men, as he scored 19 points, grabbed six rebounds, recorded four blocks and dished two assists against UW star senior Ethan Happ. Happ totaled 20 points and 12 rebounds, but shot just 9 for 23 from the field.

“He can back him down, or try to back him down as much as he wants to,” Hollingsworth said of Happ going up against Bassey. “As long as Charles is there, I knew he was either going to block it or he was going to have a good contest.”

WKU started hot, going on a 5-0 run and leading the Badgers 7-6 at the first media timeout with 15:28 left in the half. That start was fueled by an alley-oop finish from Bassey and a 3-pointer from Savage. Sophomore guard Brad Davison kept the Badgers within a point by scoring four points in the opening minutes. Wisconsin took its first lead of the game (8-7) on Davison’s second basket. That was part of an 8-0 Wisconsin run that gave the Badgers a 10-7 lead.

The two teams matched each other almost stride for stride after that before UW got on a 4-0 run to push the lead to six, the largest lead either team had had at that point. That run was helped by a WKU scoring drought that lasted over two minutes. A Savage and-one stopped the run and cut UW’s lead to just three points. That then sparked a run of three straight makes from the field for WKU, allowing the Hilltoppers to cut the lead to one point.

Both teams continued to trade baskets through the end of the half, but a Davison 3-pointer pushed the Badgers’ lead to four points at the break. He led all scorers with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting from the field in the first half. Bassey led the Hilltoppers in points with nine, and Banton led the team in rebounds and assists with six and four.

WKU shot incredibly well in the second half from the start, as the Hilltoppers hit five straight shots early in the second half. That launched a 9-0 run that gave the Hilltoppers a 43-38 lead. That forced a UW timeout at the 16:45 mark of the second half. Senior big man Ethan Happ ended a scoring drought that lasted over two minutes for the Badgers by converting a pair of free throws, which also ended WKU’s run.

The Hilltoppers and Badgers continued to trade blows in the second half. Sophomore guard Jake Ohmer hit his first shot of the season, a 3-pointer, which gave WKU a 55-52 lead. Ohmer ended the game with just three points, but he also had two rebounds, an assist and a blocked shot on Davison.

“He gave us a big boost, after that three, you know he had me hyped,” Hollingsworth said. “We needed him. He capitalized.”

UW answered with a 3-pointer from freshman guard Kobe King, but the Hilltoppers answered that with an 8-0 run to take an eight-point lead, their largest of the game.

It wasn’t long before the Hilltoppers pushed the lead to 10, as a 6-0 run gave WKU a 69-59 lead with 5:52 left in the game. WKU then went through a scoring drought of over three minutes, but Hollingsworth ended it with a floater in the lane that gave WKU a 71-65 lead. That cued a 6-0 run that put the Hilltoppers up 11 points with 1:12 remaining.

Happ dropped in a layup with 32 seconds remaining to cut WKU’s lead to just eight, but it wasn’t enough. WKU hit its free throws and sealed the win to improve to 7-6 on the year.

“It’s exciting to play like that,” Hollingsworth said. “Our team’s finally coming together, and when we play like that it’s exciting.”

Following the win, WKU will hit the road to take on Charlotte Thursday at 6:30 p.m., the first game of WKU’s Conference USA slate. It’s the first of three straight road matchups for the Hilltoppers. They’ll also have to take on an Old Dominion team that is 10-3 and has started 7-0 at home.

“We start our conference schedule now, going and playing two of the best teams in the league right off the bat on the road,” Stansbury said. “We’ve got a tough road to hold, but no question, all the scheduling we’ve had to this point … we’ve responded well to it, and the momentum we can take from this, we can build on.”

Editor Jeremy Chisenhall can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @JSChisenhall.