Long-distance travel brings Hilltoppers together

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Jeremy Chisenhall

It’s hard to find a basketball team that has traveled as much as WKU has in the 2017-18 season, and that’s been big for a team that was once full of strangers.

In addition to the Hilltoppers’ travels deep into Texas for Conference USA matchups against University of Texas-El Paso, University of Texas-San Antonio, University of North Texas and Rice University, they’ve also traveled to Costa Rica, the Bahamas, Los Angeles and now New York.

It’s been a fun journey for everyone on the team, and freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth has taken notice of where his basketball career has taken him this year.

“I’ve been to many places this year,” Hollingsworth said. “I’ve never traveled this much. Even AAU, I never traveled that far. It’s been fun.”

But as the Hilltoppers travel throughout North America and beyond, jetlag has taken its toll.

“The travel schedule from here to L.A., to L.A. to Oklahoma — I told someone we were used to Thursday-Saturday games, but we’re not used to being in L.A. on a two-hour time change with a flight in-between,” senior forward Justin Johnson said. “Then to go into an arena like that [Gallagher-Iba Arena], that’s the loudest place I’ve ever played a game of basketball.”

Starting with the Costa Rica trip, Johnson says he and his teammates really got familiar with each other away from home.

“I hadn’t been around those guys until like two days before we left, and I went on the trip,” Johnson said of the preseason Costa Rica trip. “I think this team will be able to come back in 30 years and have stories on each other from Costa Rica. It was just a blast, from ziplining, to riding four-wheelers, that trip as a whole just brought us all so much closer.”

Traveling has been a huge part of building team chemistry between a roster full of players that was coming from different situations. With Johnson being the only returning player, the Hilltoppers brought on junior guard Lamonte Barden from University at Buffalo, graduate transfers Darius Thompson from University of Virginia and Dwight Coleby from University of Kansas, and redshirt sophomore Moustapha Diagne from Northwest Florida State College. Head coach Rick Stansbury also brought on freshmen Marek Nelson, Taveion Hollingsworth, Josh Anderson and Jake Ohmer.

With a team full of new faces who hadn’t played together, it was key to build chemistry. The travel has done just that.

“The time we spend on the road is just us,” Johnson said. “We eat every meal together, we do everything together. Even if we’re in separate rooms, we’re in a group chat, or Snapchats back and forth.”

As the Hilltoppers have grown together, players say the fun they’re having has been the key in their wins this year.

“I don’t think any other team in this country is like this,” Hollingsworth said. “For us to play well … we have to joke around. When have you all ever seen everybody on the team serious? I don’t think anybody has ever seen us serious. Either somebody has a big smile, somebody’s dancing or somebody’s jumping around. That’s just how we win games. We have fun.”

The Hilltoppers have thrived in a lot of games far away from home. WKU pulled off an upset over then-no. 18 ranked Purdue University and defeated Southern Methodist University in the Bahamas early in the year. In the earlier stages of the NIT, the Hilltoppers defeated the University of Southern California in Los Angeles before traveling to Stillwater, Oklahoma, on a quick turnaround to defeat Oklahoma State University.

As the traveling continues to New York for the NIT semifinal against the University of Utah, WKU will continue to embrace the challenge away from home together.

“We aren’t scared,” Hollingsworth said. “We don’t care who we play, we’re going to play like we play. And that’s what I like about us.”

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