Hilltoppers take down Oklahoma State, advance to NIT semifinal

WKU guard Lamonte Bearden (1) and Oklahoma State Cowboys guard Kendall Smith (1) battle for a loose ball during NIT quarterfinal game between the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Hilltoppers at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Okla. on Wednesday, March 21st, 2018. 

Sam Porter

The WKU men’s basketball team has punched its ticket to New York City. 

Despite dealing with major foul trouble, the Hilltoppers outlasted Oklahoma State University 92-84 in Stillwater, Oklahoma, on Wednesday night to advance to the semifinal round of the NIT. Freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth scored a game-high 30 points. Graduate transfer forward Dwight Coleby (16 points, 13 rebounds) looked a lot like the Coleby that WKU fans knew early in the season, as he recorded the game’s only double-double.

WKU has now defeated a team from the Big Ten (Purdue University), ACC (Boston College), Pac-12 (University of Southern California), and Big 12 this season.

“It hasn’t been easy for us. We opened up the NIT against an ACC team, a good Boston College team,” head coach Rick Stansbury said in a post-game radio interview. “Then we got to go on the road against a one seed who finished second in the Pac-12. Now we had to come back tonight and beat a team that I thought was better than both of them. We went on the road against a good defensive team and scored 92 points. That’s pretty good.”

WKU jumped out to an early 28-27 lead midway through the second quarter before Hollingsworth began to really get hot. The Lexington native’s first 3-pointer with 5:37 to play in the second quarter pushed the lead to four points. OSU’s Kendall Smith answered with a jumper before Hollingsworth responded with another 3-pointer to make the score 34-29. Maintaining a 40-38 lead, Hollingsworth’s final dagger of the first half also came from deep to give WKU a five-point lead with 12 seconds to play in the first half.

Smith raced down the court and answered with a 3-pointer of his own at the buzzer to make the halftime score 43-41 in favor of WKU. Hollingsworth finished the first half with 17 points on 6 of 8 shooting.

“We didn’t think about their defense, coach told us their defense was good,” Hollingsworth said. “Us? We don’t really care what other people say of how they do things. We just go out there and play like us. When we do that, we win games.”

Hollingsworth began the second half right where he left off, with a 3-pointer to push the Hilltopper lead to five points. After the Cowboys cut the deficit to two points, junior guard Lamonte Bearden scored five in a row, capping it off with a layup to make the score 55-48.

On the following Cowboy possession, graduate transfer guard Darius Thompson intercepted a pass from OSU’s Lindy Waters III and raced down the court before finding senior forward Justin Johnson for a slam dunk to cap off a 7-0 run and force a Cowboy timeout. Johnson finished with 10 points and is now 10th on WKU’s all-time scoring list.

The Cowboys answered with an 11-3 run to tie the game at 60 with 1:15 to go in the third quarter. Needing an answer, Bearden found Coleby for a slam dunk to give WKU the lead back. On the following possession, Bearden capped off the third quarter with a layup to give WKU a 64-60 lead going into the final period. Bearden finished with 19 points and six assists.

OSU’s Jeffrey Carroll’s 3-pointer with 5:55 to play made the score 71-70 in favor of WKU. Thompson answered, capitalizing on a drive and layup while being fouled by OSU’s Mitchell Solomon. Thompson hit the free throw to push the lead to four.

Once again, the Cowboys cut the lead to one point, and once again Thompson had an answer. He nailed a 3-pointer from the right side to push the lead back to four with 4:14 to play. Thompson scored 10 of his 11 points in the fourth quarter after spending the majority of the first half on the bench due to foul trouble.

“He hit a big shot and was really attacking the basket,” Johnson said of Thompson. “He probably would’ve been doing the same in the first half but picked up two early fouls. But the second half he made big plays when we needed big plays.”

Holding on to an 82-77 lead with 1:34 to play, WKU needed one final stop to force OSU to start fouling. Smith drove in looking to make it a one-possesion game. Coleby, who was playing with 4 fouls, jumped up and blocked the shot and Hollingsworth garnered the loose ball.

“Coleby was a man,” Stansbury said. “Particularly when he came back in down the stretch. He finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds, but there were about three blocks in the last five minutes of the game that kept us separated from them and prevented them from scoring. It was just a great team effort.”

OSU was forced to foul and WKU hit 12 of 14 free throws down the stretch to seal the 92-84 victory.

The win improves WKU to 27-10 overall. The Hilltoppers will take on the University of Utah in the semifinal Tuesday at 6 p.m. in Madison Square Garden.

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