Hilltoppers fall to Utah in semifinal of NIT

WKU guard Lamonte Bearden takes a shot against Utah during the first half of the NIT semifinals in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.

Sam Porter

The WKU men’s basketball team’s season came to an end in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night when the Hilltoppers fell to the University of Utah 69-64 in the semifinals of the NIT.

Utah used a 6-0 run in the final 38 seconds to pull off the five-point victory. Senior forward Justin Johnson (24 points, 11 rebounds) and graduate transfer forward Dwight Coleby (10 points, 13 rebounds) each recorded double-doubles in their final collegiate basketball games. Graduate-transfer guard Darius Thompson added four points in his final collegiate game.

“Well first off, give Utah credit. They made the plays in the last minute of the game that you’ve got to make to win games,” head Coach Rick Stansbury said. “In these kind of games, it’s a fine line between winning and losing. We can look on the different plays that we cold have and should have made and we didn’t make, or a call here or there. When you’re playing a good team like Utah this late in the year, all of them are fine lines. Give them credit. They made the plays.

Johnson got the Hilltopper scoring going early with a 3-pointer from the left side. After an offensive putback, Johnson hit another 3-pointer to give the Hilltoppers an early 8-0 lead and force a Utah timeout.

After Utah’s Gabe Bealer hit a 3-pointer to break the shutout, a Johnson dunk capped off a quick 6-0 spurt and pushed the lead to 11. Junior guard Lamonte Bearden’s jumper pushed the lead to 13 points early in the second quarter before the Utes began to dig into the deficit.

Trailing 25-16, Utah went on an 11-2 run capped off by a jumper by Sedrick Barefield to give the Utes their first lead at 27-25. Still holding on to a two-point lead, the Utes had the ball with the shot clock turned off looking to go into the half up by two possessions. Graduate transfer guard Darius Thompson stole a Tyler Rawson pass and found Bearden for a fast break dunk right before the buzzer sounded to tie the game 32 at the break. WKU shot just 32.4 percent from the field in the first half, but 15 points off turnovers kept the Hilltoppers in the game.

The two teams continued to trade buckets up until the 8:08 mark of the fourth quarter, when the Hilltoppers built the slightest bit of momentum. Trailing 55-53, Johnson’s final 3-pointer of his collegiate career gave the Hilltoppers a one-point lead. Freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth’s jumper pushed the lead to three points with 6:44 to play.

After Utah took a 64-63 lead with 1:27 to play, Johnson’s final collegiate bucket gave WKU a one-point lead again. After a defensive stop, the Hilltoppers went back to number 23. But Johnson was called for an offensive foul on a similar play under the basket to give the ball back to the Utes. Utah’s Tyler Rawson nailed a 3-pointer off the assist from Justin Bibbins to give the Utes a two-point lead.

“We scored on the very same play before,” Johnson said about the charge call. “Coach put the ball in my hands to make a play. I didn’t think it was a charge. I thought it was going up. I thought he slid under me. I had already left my feet. But you can’t change a call. We were still up one, and you get a stop, you still have a chance to win the ball game.”

Following Rawson’s go-ahead 3-pointer, Bearden drove in and was also called for an offensive foul, giving the ball back to the Utes with 22 seconds to play. The Hilltoppers were forced to foul, and Bibbins hit two free throws to make it a two-possession game.

Johnson’s 3-pointer on the ensuing possession missed, and Barefield grabbed the rebound. He was immediately fouled with just seven seconds to play. Barefield hit 1 of 2 free throws to cap off a 6-0 spurt in the final 38 seconds of the game as Utah ended WKU’s season. The Hilltoppers conclude year two under Rick Stansbury at 27-11 overall, a 12-win improvement from last season and the most wins since the 2007-08 season when the Hilltoppers went to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

“That was my goal when I came here. You know, you want to leave something better than you found it and leave an impression on it,” Johnson said. “I hope to have done that and help those young guys in the locker room whether it’s in life or basketball.”

Bearden and freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth are the lone two starters returning for WKU in 2018-19.

Freshman guards Josh Anderson and Jake Ohmer, freshman forward Marek Nelson, and redshirt sophomore forward Moustapha Diagne return as key contributors off the bench. Austin Peay transfer Jared Savage will also be eligible for the Hilltoppers next season after sitting out this season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Reporter Sam Porter can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @SammyP14.