Hilltoppers take down top-seeded USC, advance to NIT quarterfinal

WKU senior Justin Johnson (23) drives toward the hoop to score while guarded by Boston College freshman Steffon Mitchell (41) during WKU’s game vs. Boston College in the first round of the NIT tournament.

Sam Porter

With a 79-75 win over University of Southern California, the WKU men’s basketball team is one of 24 teams in the nation still playing basketball across the NCAA Tournament and the NIT.

The Hilltoppers held off USC in Los Angeles on Monday night to advance to the quarterfinals of the NIT. Senior forwards Justin Johnson and Dwight Coleby combined for 36 points while junior guard Lamonte Bearden added 11 points in the victory. The win is the first road victory over a PAC-12 opponent in school history and gives WKU its third win over a Power 5 opponent this season.

“We went on the road and found a way to win against a team that finished 2nd in the PAC-12,” head coach Rick Stansbury said after the game in a radio interview. “You got to find ways to make plays to win games, and our guys stepped up and found ways to made the offensive plays down the stretch.”

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The Trojans jumped out to a 28-22 lead early in the second quarter before freshman guard Jake Ohmer gave the Hilltoppers a much needed spark off the bench. The Scott High School product found fellow freshman Marek Nelson for a slam dunk to cut the deficit to four. Ohmer nailed a 3-pointer on the following possession before finding graduate transfer forward Dwight Coleby underneath for his second assist of the night.

USC’s Jordan McLaughlin answered with a 3-pointer to push the lead back out to six. Ohmer’s second 3-pointer of the night jumpstarted a 9-0 run to give WKU a 38-35 lead with 2:01 to play in the second quarter. Ohmer finished with eight points off the bench, all of which came in the second quarter.

“Jake had an attitude,” Stansbury said. “He had eight points in 12 minutes. I put him back in the second half to try to get him shots against the zone, but we weren’t able to get him the shots we wanted.”

McLaughlin answered with another 3-pointer to tie the game before a Johnson layup helped give WKU a 40-39 halftime lead.

WKU would stretch its lead to 57-50 midway through the third quarter before the Trojans began to make a late run. McLaughlin’s layup with 5:51 to play capped off a a 17-4 USC run to give the Trojans a 67-61 lead. Coleby would answer with a bucket plus a foul to cut the deficit to three and set up a wild finish in Los Angeles. Johnson and Coleby hit back-to-back jumpers to suddely give WKU a one-point advantage. USC’s Jordan Usher nailed a 3-pointer and Bearden added a jumper to tie the game at 70, setting up the biggest play of the game.

Usher missed a 3-point attempt on the following possession, and graduate transfer guard Darius Thompson grabbed the rebound. He moved the ball up the court to Bearden, and Bearden and Johnson found themselves in a 2-on-1 fastbreak. That ultimately concluded with Bearden tossing up an easy alley-oop to Johnson to give WKU a two-point lead.

Holding on to a 77-75 lead with 33.1 seconds to play, the Hilltoppers needed one defensive stop to hold on. Usher’s go-ahead 3-pointer missed, and instead of fouling the Trojans tried to go for the steal. The Hilltoppers were able to get by the Trojan defense before Thompson found Coleby wide open underneath for a slam dunk that was ultimately the exclamation point as WKU held on for a 79-75 victory.

The win improves WKU to 26-10 overall. The Hilltoppers will play at Oklahoma State University on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the quarterfinals of the NIT. With a win, WKU would advance to the NIT’s semifinal round, which takes place at Madison Square Garden.

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