Hiltoppers escape North Texas with overtime win

Senior forward Justin Johnson (23) looks to pass to a teammate during WKU’s game vs. Florida Atlantic in E.A. Diddle Arena on Thursday Feb. 8, 2018. Johnson scored second highest amount of points on his team and played 35 minutes. 

Sam Porter

The WKU men’s basketball team defeated University of North Texas 102-94 in an overtime thriller Thursday night in Denton, Texas.

Just two weeks ago, WKU made its initial trip to Texas for a two-game stint. The Hilltoppers struggled, barely edging out a victory over a struggling University of Texas El-Paso before losing by 11 points to University of Texas San-Antonio. Tonight, the Hilltoppers returned to Texas looking for better results.

In the first half in Thursday, WKU looked like the team that played in Texas two weeks ago. But a different Hilltopper team came out in the second half and in overtime. Freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth led a dominant second half and overtime surge, scoring 30 points to help the Hilltoppers defeat UNT 102-94 in overtime.

“That’s the kind of gutsy, tough effort you have to have on the road,” Head coach Rick Stansbury said in a radio postgame interview. “First 20 minutes, they were the scrappier team. We weren’t guarding them. The last 25 minutes, we were the scrappiest toughest team. We got stops and got out in transition.”

The Mean Green led 41-33 at the break before Hollingsworth gave WKU the spark they needed. The Lexington native scored 10 points during a 29-9 run to open the second half to give the Hilltoppers a 59-50 lead. The lead more than flipped the halftime deficit, leaving the Mean Green crowd stunned.

“In the first half, they scored whenever they wanted to,” Hollingsworth said. “After the first half we went into the locker room we were like ‘this is the worst defense we’ve ever played. We’ve got to pick it up or we’re going to lose this game by a lot.’”

Hollingsworth said that WKU stepped up on defense a lot in the second half. 

UNT’s Roosevelt Smart and company wouldn’t let WKU off the hook easy. Smart answered WKU’s run with a 3-pointer as the Mean Green tried to not let the Hilltoppers pull away. WKU kept their distance, answering every Mean Green bucket. UNT never got closer than six points until the final minute of regulation. Trailing by five, Smart found Jordan Duffy for a 3-pointer to make the score 79-77 with 38 seconds to play. Graduate transfer forward Dwight Coleby hit one of two free throws, keeping it a one-possession game with 28 seconds to play. Smart and Duffy both missed 3-pointers before Ryan Woolridge grabbed Duffy’s miss and hit a fadeaway 3-pointer to tie the game with eight seconds to play. Hollingsworth missed the game-winning bucket, sending the game into overtime.

Graduate transfer guard Darius Thompson and UNT’s DJ Draper traded 3-pointers to begin overtime before freshman guard Josh Anderson scored back-to-back buckets to give WKU a lead it wouldn’t give back. Draper hit another 3-pointer to make it a two-point game with 47 seconds to play, setting up what appeared to be a similar finish as the end of regulation. Thompson hit two free throws to make it a four point game. The Mean Green failed to answer, and Coleby found senior forward Justin Johnson wide open for an exclamation point dunk. Johnson was the lone player on either team to play all 45 minutes as the Hilltoppers went on to win 102-94.

The win improves WKU to 19-7 (11-2 C-USA). The Hilltoppers are back in action Saturday night at Rice University. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.

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