Johnson’s double-double lifts WKU over Old Dominion

Junior guard Lamonte Bearden (1), pushes through the defense of Missouri State Bears to gain possession of the ball on Friday, Nov. 10 at E.A. Diddle Arena.

Sam Porter

Coming off a career-high 27 points in last Saturday’s blowout win at Marshall, senior forward Justin Johnson picked up right where he left off in WKU’s win over Old Dominion.

The Hazard, Kentucky native scored 25 points and grabbed 14 rebounds as the Hilltoppers defeated the Monarchs 75-68 to remain undefeated in Conference USA play. Graduate transfer guard Darius Thompson added 24 points and junior guard Lamonte Bearden scored 15 points in the victory.

“It was a gutty effort,” Head coach Rick Stansbury said in a radio post game interview. “[The Monarchs] lead the league in defensive scoring. It was a bit of an ugly game because they’re so good defensively.”

Johnson scored 11 points, including three 3-pointers, in the first seven minutes to give the Hilltoppers an early 16-6 lead. It’s the fourth time in four C-USA games where the Hilltoppers built a double digit lead in the first 10 minutes. Shortly after, redshirt sophomore forward Moustapha Diagne entered the game to make his college debut. The Rufisque, Senegal native was ruled eligible by the NCAA on Wednesday after sitting out the first 16 games of the season. Diagne didn’t score, but pulled down 4 rebounds in 17 minutes.

“Those 17 minutes on the road against that team was a huge something that we needed,” Stansbury said. “Without him (Diagne) we are looking at playing Marek (Neslon) and that wasn’t a team we wanted to play small against.”

WKU held on for a 19-14 lead a little over 10 minutes into the game before ODU guard B.J. Stith gave the Monarchs a spark. Stith scored 9 of his 17 points down the stretch of the 1st half to propel ODU to a 32-27 lead. Thompson hit a running 3-pointer at the buzzer to cut the deficit to just two points at the half. It was the first time the Hilltoppers trailed at half in C-USA play this season.

Johnson started the second half similar to how he started the first half, with a 3-pointer to give WKU a lead they never gave back. His career high fifth 3-pointer with 13:20 to play gave the Hilltoppers a 47-41 lead.

“Me and coach talked about shooting in shootaround. It’s something I’ve worked on and worked on and gained a lot of confidence,” Johnson said of his shooting. “Their bigs on the pick and roll like to sit back, so coach told me to step up and shoot it. Shoot it until you miss. My teammates have faith in me shooting so I’m going to continue to shoot.”

The Hilltoppers stretched their lead to as much as 11 points with 4:35 remaining before the Monarchs pushed for one last surge. Spith’s final 3-pointer highlighted a quick 7-2 ODU run to make the score 68-62. But that’s as close as the Monarchs got as WKU pulled away for a 75-68 win.

The win improves WKU to 12-5 (4-0 C-USA) and leaves the Hilltoppers and Middle Tennessee as the two only undefeated teams left in C-USA play. The Hilltoppers take on Charlotte (5-10, 1-3 C-USA) at 6 p.m. on Saturday in Dale F. Halton Arena.

“The next one is the biggest game of the year for us,” Stansbury said. “It happens to be Charlotte. You can’t come in here and have a big win then have a let down in the next one. The next one is always the biggest.”

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