Hollingsworth becomes unexpected star in freshman season

Freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth wipes his face during a game against Florida Atlantic University on Feb. 8. Hollingsworth put up 20 points that night, helping the Hilltoppers to a 75-63 win.

Sam Porter

Around this time last year, WKU basketball fans were excited. They weren’t excited about the present, but about the future. Head coach Rick Stansbury had received commitments from five-star prospect Mitchell Robinson and four-star prospect Josh Anderson, the two highest-rated players to ever commit to WKU.

Robinson never played a minute in a Hilltopper uniform, and while Anderson has been impressive at times this season, he hasn’t been the most impressive freshman in what is one of the best recruiting classes in WKU basketball history.

The best freshman in an impressive class has been Kentucky-native Taveion Hollingsworth.

Hollingsworth committed to WKU as a three-star recruit after leading Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School to a Kentucky state championship as a junior. He went on to win Mr. Basketball honors as a senior and is one of three players to start all 31 games this season. His 13.3 points per game ranks third on the roster and has earned him Conference USA freshman of the week multiple times. Hollingsworth’s success came a little faster than expected and surprised a lot of people, including himself.

“Not really,” Hollingsworth said when asked if he expected to have the success he’s having. “I really didn’t expect to be doing some of the things I’m doing right now. But I put it all in God’s hands, and He’s taken care of it.”

Although Hollingsworth may have surprised himself by his stellar freshman season, Stansbury and teammates aren’t surprised by his success after seeing how hard he worked in pre-season conditioning. Stansbury mentioned Hollingsworth showed up to camp in better shape than expected and was even leading his teammates who were in their fourth and fifth years of playing college basketball. Stansbury said he’s never had a freshman show up out of high school and lead conditioning the way Hollingsworth did before the season.

“He’s got one of the greatest abilities you can have, toughness,” Stansbury said of Hollingsworth. “Toughness overcomes a lot of things. That’s what makes him special and that’s why his game will keep improving, because of his toughness.”

The true freshman’s toughness was put to the ultimate test midway through C-USA play. Just two days after hitting five 3-pointers in the second half in a comeback victory over University of Texas-El Paso, Hollingsworth suffered the first broken bone of his life. With less than a minute to play in WKU’s 74-63 loss to University of Texas-San Antonio, Hollingsworth took a shot to the face by a UTSA player’s hip while going for a loose ball, leaving him face-down on the court for a short period of time.

“At first I didn’t think it was serious, I closed my eyes and just laid there for a bit. But once I opened my eyes and saw blood under me I thought I might have broken my nose. I did something similar in high school and it wasn’t broken so I was hoping it was the same situation.” Hollingsworth said.

Sure enough, Hollingsworth’s nose was broken, and the Dunbar product was in danger of missing his first game of his college career. Stansbury ordered a face mask to protect the broken nose which would allow Hollingsworth to be cleared to play. Luckily for WKU, the mask came in the night before WKU’s home game against Florida Atlantic University.

Hollingsworth said he got some shots up the night before with the mask and even tried sleeping with it to try to get used to wearing it. Despite that, it was still in question whether or not he would play against FAU.

Hollingsworth didn’t just end up playing, but he shined with the mask on, leading WKU with 20 points in a 75-63 victory to ignite a six-game winning streak and put the Hilltoppers back in the C-USA regular season title hunt.

“Most guys would give you an excuse on why they couldn’t make shots, why they couldn’t defend, why I can’t do some things,” Stansbury said. “But there was zero from him. He’s made some huge plays and never made an excuse. He never said, ‘Coach, I don’t know if I can do this, this is hard, this is tough.’ I never heard any of that. He never blinked.”    

At the conclusion of the regular season, Hollingsworth currently sits fourth all-time in WKU history in points in a season by a true freshman. He needs just two points to pass Derrick Gordon for third all-time and 51 points to pass Hilltopper great Courtney Lee for first all-time.

Lee led WKU to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament as a junior. If Hollingsworth wants to put his name in front of one of the bigger names in WKU basketball history, he will likely have to help lead the Hilltoppers to the Big Dance as a true freshman. Hollingsworth and company will begin their path to a C-USA title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night when they play the winner of University of  Alabama-Birmingham and FAU in the second round of the C-USA Tournament.

Regardless of how his freshman season ends, the inner-state product has quickly become a fan favorite and his freshman season will go down as one of the best ever in school history.

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