Hilltoppers beat zone defense, blow out Rice

Freshman guard Jake Ohmer (21) dribbles to the hoop during WKU’s game vs. Florida Atlantic in E.A. Diddle Arena on Feb. 8. WKU beat Florida Atlantic 75-63. 

Sam Porter

The WKU men’s basketball team handled Rice University 85-66 on the road Saturday night to improve to 20-7 (12-2 Conference USA) on the season.

The Hilltoppers never trailed as graduate transfer guard Darius Thompson (18 points, 10 assists) and senior forward Justin Johnson (16 points, 13 rebounds) both recorded double-doubles. Graduate transfer forward Dwight Coleby (12 points), freshman guard Josh Anderson (12 points) and junior guard Lamonte Bearden (11 points) also broke double figures in the win. The 20th win marks the fourth time in WKU history the Hilltoppers have posted 20 or more wins in a season.

“We came out ready to play from the get-go,” Head Coach Rick Stansbury said in a radio post game show. “There was no question who was the better and more energetic team. It’s the first time we saw a zone for 40 minutes. We were very efficient against that zone, we got up early, and we never let up.”

WKU won the tip and Thompson got the Hilltoppers going early. The Virginia transfer found Coleby underneath for the game’s opening bucket just 12 seconds into the game. Thompson then stole a Rice pass and found Bearden for an easy layup to ignite a 10-0 start for the Hilltoppers.

Rice would slowly dig into the deficit, hitting five 3-pointers in the first 15 minutes to stay in the game. Holding on to a 27-23 lead, WKU broke the game open. Following a bucket by freshman guard Josh Anderson, Thompson hit a 3-pointer and a layup on back-to-back fast break possessions.

Freshman guard Jake Ohmer hit his first 3-pointer of the night just moments later to highlight a 15-0 run to blow the game open and help WKU enter the half with a 48-31 lead. Ohmer finished the game with three 3-pointers, the most he’s put in during C-USA play this season.

“It was good to see Jake come off the bench and do what he did,” Stansbury said. “When we showed up here Friday night, he shot it well and he shot it well this morning too. He shot the cover off it and it carried over to this game. When he got it, he zeroed in and looked like the old Jake.”

The Owls continued to shoot well from 3-point land, hitting three 3-pointers in the first seven minutes of the second half. Rice’s Dylan Jones hit a jumper with 12:34 to play cut the deficit to 13 points, but that would be as close as Rice would get. Ohmer would hit his other two 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions before a Coleby dunk capped off a 17-2 run to put the game out of reach for good. Coleby scored 12 points and grabbed just three rebounds against the Rice zone defense. But the Hilltoppers shot over 50 percent from 3-point land on the night, drawing a lot of attention away from Coleby underneath.

“We’ve been struggling, but they finally got their flow going and it helped us,” Coleby said. “When our guys are clicking and hitting shots like that at an efficient rate, there’s no need to keep pounding it inside. We’re playing good as a team right now and that’s all that matters.”

WKU is back in action on Thursday against UNC Charlotte (5-20, 1-13 C-USA), who the Hilltoppers already defeated 73-63 earlier this season. On Saturday, the Hilltoppers will host Old Dominion University, the team WKU is currently tied with for second place in the C-USA standings.

“Old Dominion is playing well, but we have Charlotte first. Thats where our focus will be,” Stansbury said. “I know everybody is looking ahead to Old Dominion, no question it will be a sell-out. But we need a sell-out Thursday night. This team is an exciting team to watch. I think we’re starting to put our best basketball together now, and now is the time to do that.”

Reporter Sam Porter can be reached at 270-799-8247 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @SammyP14.