Late first half surge propels Hilltoppers past UAB and into semifinal

WKU Guard Lamonte Bearden (1) dunks the ball during the Hilltoppers game in first game of the Conference USA tournament against University of Alabama at Birmingham on Thursday March 8, 2018 at The Star in Frisco, Tx.

Sam Porter

The WKU men’s basketball team took a step in the right direction of the NCAA Tournament by beating University of Alabama-Birmingham in the Conference USA Quarterfinals on Thursday.

Just five days before, UAB gave WKU its worst loss of the season when they defeated the Hilltoppers by 28 points. This time the Hilltoppers flipped the score, defeating the Blazers 98-70, giving head coach Rick Stansbury his first career Conference USA Tournament win and advance to the semifinals.

Freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth scored 22 points despite a minor injury to his left thumb early in the game. Graduate transfer guard Darius Thompson added 20 points, while senior forward Justin Johnson and junior guard Lamonte Bearden added 19 points each. Johnson also added 10 rebounds to record the game’s only double-double.

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“When we knew UAB had won their first game we knew it we wanted to give them some payback,” Thompson said. “When we played them at UAB they kind of beat us up the whole night and punched us in the face. As competitors we wanted to go out there and fight back and get that win back.”

The Blazers began right where they left off from the previous meeting. After WKU won the tip and missed an opening layup, the Blazers easily capitalized on the first two possessions to jump out to an early 4-0 lead. Thompson and Johnson answered with two buckets to tie the game.

For the next 11 minutes of play, the two teams would trade buckets before freshman guard Josh Anderson swayed the momentum into WKU’s favor.

After UAB’s William Lee hit a 3-pointer to give the Blazers a 31-28 lead, Thompson missed a fast break layup, but was followed by Anderson who stormed in and slammed home a putback dunk to ignite his team. Anderson would nail a jumper on the following possession and finished the game with 10 points.

“He gave us 22 good minutes,” Stansbury said of Anderson. “That dunk gave us a lot of energy but I thought he was good defensively for us too. He really gave us a good presence out there.”

With WKU leading 43-35 and the final seconds of the first half winding down, Bearden found Johnson atop the key, and Johnson knocked down a 3-pointer as time expired to give WKU an 11 point halftime lead. That helped the Hilltoppers finish the first half on an 18-4 run. UAB never drew any closer than the halftime deficit.

Bearden and Thompson combined for 12 points in the opening seven minutes of play to push the lead to 18 points in the second half. With 11:47 to play, Thompson found Johnson for an alley-oop layup to push the lead all the way to 20 points.

“Justin hits that shot right before half and we go into the locker room feeling good,” Stansbury said. “They probably went into the locker room not feeling so good. But the key was to come out and win those first four minutes of the second half, then the next four minutes, and the four minutes after that. We did that, that’s what you have to do.”

Bearden’s dunk with 3:34 to play was the ultimate exclamation point as WKU cruised to a 98-70 victory. The win improves WKU’s overall record to 23-9.

The Hilltoppers take on Old Dominion University tomorrow at 3 p.m. in the semifinals of the C-USA Tournament. WKU swept the Monarchs in the regular season.

“We’re not even going to talk about the first two times we played them,” Stansbury said. “We’ve never played them on this neutral court. We know this, Old Dominion is a really good basketball team. We’ll have to play exceptionally well to win this basketball game tomorrow.”

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