Hilltoppers pull away from FIU for 10th conference win

Redshirt junior Lamonte Bearden lays up the ball after a break-away steal during WKU’s game vs. Florida Atlantic in Diddle Arena on Thursday, Feb. 8. Bearden scored 5 points and played 25 minutes of the game. 

Sam Porter

The WKU men’s basketball team defeated Florida International University 83-76 Saturday night in Diddle Arena, despite graduate transfer Dwight Coleby leaving the game with an apparent knee injury.

Senior forward Justin Johnson led the Hilltoppers with 25 points and grabbed seven rebounds, while graduate transfer guard Darius Thompson (18 points), junior guard Lamonte Bearden (15 points) and freshman forward Josh Anderson (13 points) also broke double figures. The win improves WKU to 18-7 (10-2 Conference USA).

“This time of the year, it’s a grind,” head coach Rick Stansbury said after the game. “When you can adjust after losing one of your guys and find a way to win against a good team….We’re happy with the win. This time of the year there’s plenty of teams that lost to a team they weren’t supposed to lose to at home.”

Both teams traded buckets throughout the first half as neither team led by more than four until the 3:57 mark of the first half, when a quick 7-0 Golden Panther run helped FIU build a 33-27 cushion. Anderson, who made his second consecutive start, drove left baseline and converted a layup while drawing a foul to spark an 8-2 run to tie the game at the half. Anderson finished with a career-high nine rebounds to go along with his 13 points.

“I thought Josh played really well, we got him to play aggressive tonight,” Thompson said. “Hopefully we can keep him going and show people how versatile he is. When he gets out in transition he can really make plays. We definitely need Josh to play well moving forward.”

With the Hilltoppers holding on to a one-point lead with 14:57 to play, Bearden brought Diddle Arena to life. The Buffalo transfer scored on a layup, stole a pass on FIU’s ensuing possession and found freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth on a no-look pass for an easy bucket, leaving FIU defenders’ knees frozen in the process.

A technical foul was called on the WKU bench following Hollingsworth’s bucket, but it didn’t sway the momentum much. Following two FIU free throws, Thompson drove left baseline for a one-handed slam dunk to highlight a 15-6 run to give WKU a 59-49 lead with 10:01 to play.

Coleby’s absence meant Johnson was the only true post player for WKU, giving the Hilltoppers more speed on the court than usual. Despite not starting, Bearden saw a lot more action at the point guard position while Thompson played more at the 3-guard position.

“I like it a lot. It really gets Lamonte going,” Thompson said of the transition. “It makes me more aggressive looking to score. Also having four guards all being able to make plays really opens the defense up.”

The Golden Eagles slowly began to eat away at the Hilltopper lead as FIU’s Michael Douglas hit a 3-pointer with 2:11 cut the lead to two points. Johnson hit two free throws, the Hilltoppers got a defensive stop and Bearden’s final bucket made it a six-point game with 1:05 to play.

FIU was forced to foul the rest of the way and WKU went 8-for-8 from the free-throw line to close the game and pull away for an 83-76 victory.

WKU is back in action on Thursday on the road against North Texas University. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m. in Denton, Texas.

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