WKU plagued by turnovers and poor shooting in loss to UTSA

WKU forward Justin Johnson looks for a pass against the Marshall Thundering Herd at E.A. Diddle Arena on Saturday, January 27. Johnson racked up 8 points and 12 rebounds in the 85-74 win.

Sam Porter

Last season, Texas-San Antonio ended WKU basketball’s season in the Conference USA Tournament. On Saturday, UTSA all but shattered WKU’s chances of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament with a 74-63 win over the Hilltoppers in San Antonio.

Freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth led WKU with 21 points. Senior forward Justin Johnson scored 13 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to record the game’s only double-double. UTSA out-rebounded WKU 47-38 while the Hilltoppers shot just 56.7 percent from the free throw line. The 11-point loss is also the largest loss the Hilltoppers have suffered this season.

“I’ll take the bulk of the blame because it starts with me, Darius and Dwight,” Johnson said following the game in a postgame radio interview. “But it starts with me because I’m the guy that’s been here. I know how tough this conference is. When you go on the road, nothing is ever easy. We didn’t show up at UTEP on Thursday and were lucky to come away with a win. You would think we would be ready to play today and we just weren’t.”

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UTSA guard Jhivvan Jackson scored eight of his 22 points in the first eight minutes to help the Road Runners jump out to an early 19-5 lead. WKU didn’t hit a field goal until the 12:10 mark of the first half when freshman forward Josh Anderson hit a jumper to cut the early deficit to 12 points. The Hilltoppers never got within single digits the rest of the first half as UTSA entered the break with a 37-25 lead at the half. The Hilltoppers shot 7-of-31, including 0-of-9 from 3-point land, and were out-rebounded 31-17 in the first half against C-USA’s top rebounding team.

Jackson opened up the second half with a 3-pointer followed by a bucket from Byron Frohnen, and that pushed the UTSA lead to 17 points, the largest deficit WKU had faced in C-USA play this season.

“Being down 12 at halftime wasn’t a big concern,” Head Coach Rick Stansbury said. “We were 0-9 from the three point line and 11-20 from the free throw line. We come out and start the second half, we turn the ball over and give up the first 5 points of the half. You can’t do that when you’re fighting from behind on the road. I’ve got to do a better job of figuring out a way to keep us from doing that. We just didn’t have that edge today.”

For the second straight game, Hollingsworth looked to help rally WKU from behind. The Lexington native’s 3-pointer with 15:08 to play capped off 10-2 run. For the first time since the early minutes of the game, the Hilltoppers were within single digits. UTSA’s Giovanni de Nicolao hit a jumper to cease WKU’s momentum and pushed the lead back to double digits. Another Jackson jumper helped stretch the lead back to 16 points with 11:16 to play. Graduate transfer guard Darius Thompson’s jumper on a fast break capped off an 8-1 run to cut the deficit to 10 points with 4:08 to play. But that’d be as close as WKU would get as UTSA pulled away for a 74-63 victory.

The loss drops WKU to 16-7 (8-2 C-USA) and leaves Middle Tennessee atop the conference as the only team in C-USA with one loss in league play. The Hilltoppers are back in action next Thursday against Florida Atlantic (10-12, 4-6 C-USA). The Hilltoppers and Owls will tip-off at 7:30 in Diddle Arena.

“I’m going to make sure on Monday we practice hard,” Johnson said. “We’ve gotten complacent and I think that’s the biggest thing. We’ve gotten lucky with some wins. On Monday I’m going to make sure we go to work and it starts with me. We’ve got to stop being complacent.”

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