Seniors get storybook ending, but the final road trip is still critical

Forward Justin Johnson (23) drives to the hoop during senior night against Old Dominion on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018 in E.A. Diddle Arena. Johnson scored his 34th career double-double with 19 points and 11 rebounds.

Sam Porter

Saturday night’s game against Old Dominion University marked the end of an era for the WKU men’s basketball program.

The 88-66 thrashing of the Monarchs was the final game in Diddle Arena for senior forward Justin Johnson and graduate transfers Dwight Coleby and Darius Thompson. Although their time at WKU was short-lived, the excitement Coleby and Thompson have brought to the Hill will not be forgotten anytime soon.

As for Johnson, no one could have written a better script for his final game in front of a Hilltopper crowd. The four year starter tallied 19 points and 11 rebounds, his 34th career double-double, as well as proposing to his girlfriend, now fiancée, following the senior day ceremonies. The 22-point victory puts WKU in sole possession of 2nd place in Conference USA.

“That’s the way you send your seniors off,” head coach Rick Stansbury said. “You all have heard me talk about our three seniors all year long. They’re incredible people, they always play great and they’re the type of kids you want to coach.”

One factor for WKU’s success on Saturday, and in Diddle Arena all season, was the crowd finally creating an atmosphere that’s tough for opponents to play in. Diddle Arena was sold out and packed on multiple occasions this season, including the home finale. Johnson hit his first five shots of the game against ODU, helping WKU build an early double-digit lead and causing Diddle to erupt as loud as it’s been all season long.

“They helped us win a ball game today,” Johnson said of the crowd following the ODU win. “After the first 4 minutes, all of us on the court looked at each other and were like ‘It’s rocking in here.’ From the get-go the crowd was fantastic. The students were on their feet the whole game.”

But although you may never see Johnson, Coleby and Thompson play in Diddle Arena ever again, the era is still far from finished. In fact, it may just be getting started. Still with three games left in the season, the Hilltoppers have already tallied 22 wins, which are the most in a single season for WKU in nearly a decade. WKU’s 14 wins in C-USA are also the most since it joined the conference in the 2014-15 season. Over the past three games, the Hilltoppers have outscored their opponents by an average of 26.3 points per game. WKU will hope to ride that momentum into the most important game of the season Thursday against Middle Tennessee State University.

On Jan. 20, MTSU stormed into Diddle Arena and handed WKU it’s only home C-USA loss of the season. The win gave the Blue Raiders control of first place. Now, the Hilltoppers will look to avenge that loss Thursday when they travel to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for round two. With a win, WKU would be tied with MTSU atop the C-USA standings. If the two were both to finish with the same C-USA record, Marshall would have to finish ahead of University of Texas-San Antonio in the final C-USA standings for WKU to claim the number one overall seed in the C-USA tournament.

“They’re the best team in our conference, and I’m going to say that until somebody beats them,” Stansbury said. “They are in the top 25 for a reason. I have a lot of respect for what they’re doing and what they’ve done. It will take our best to beat them.”

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