WKU pulls away from UAB, sets up showdown with MTSU

Junior guard, Lamonte Bearden, (1), pushes through the defense of Missouri State Bears to gain possession of the ball on Fri. Nov 10, 2017 at Diddle Arena.

Sam Porter

WKU overcame a seven-point second half deficit to defeat Alabama-Birmingham 77-69 and remain perfect in Conference USA. 

Trailing UAB 63-57 with eight minutes to play, it was gut check time for the Hilltoppers. They finished the game on a 20-6 run to outlast the Blazers 77-69. Five different Hilltoppers scored in double figures as graduate transfer forward Dwight Coleby (17 points, 11 rebounds) recorded his second consecutive double double; his eighth of the year.

“I never thought we were at our best all night long,” head coach Rick Stansbury said. “Any time you can find a way to win against a really good team, one of the better teams in this league, and you feel like you didn’t play your best, it’s always a good win. That’s how this win feels tonight.”

The Hilltoppers won the tip and immediately got things going. Junior guard Lamonte Bearden found graduate transfer forward Dwight Coleby underneath for a dunk to spark a 13-4 start for the Hilltoppers. But a 9-0 Blazer run capped off by a 3-pointer from UAB guard Nick Norton would tie the game and would set the trend of the first half. WKU never trailed in the first half but could never pull away from the Blazers.

With WKU leading 31-21, another Norton 3-pointer sparked a 10-0 Blazer run to tie the game up with 58 seconds left in the half. Senior forward Justin Johnson’s bucket and a foul gave WKU the lead back, and graduate transfer guard Darius Thompson’s steal and dunk right before the buzzer gave the Hilltoppers a 36-31 halftime lead.

UAB started the second half similar to how WKU started the first, with a 13-4 run that forced Stansbury to burn a timeout.

“We come out in the second half and Chris Cokley went at us,” Stansbury said. “I think he scored seven of those points to take the lead on us and got Dwight to pick up his second and third foul.”

The Blazers would hold on to their lead for the majority of the second until the 6:00 mark. Trailing 63-60, Thompson drove in with his right hand and slammed a one-handed dunk to bring a full Diddle Arena back to life. On the ensuing possession, Thompson got his hands on an inbounds pass, deflecting it and allowing freshman guard Jake Ohmer to steal it and score to give WKU its first lead since the 18:12 mark of the second half.

UAB reclaimed the lead 67-64 after back-to-back buckets by forward Chris Cokley and guard Zack Bryant. Ohmer was fouled on a 3-pointer and UAB head coach Robert Ehsan was called for a technical foul that ultimately switched the momentum of the game in WKU’s favor. Ohmer hit 4-of-5 free throws to give the Hilltoppers a lead they never gave back. Freshman guard Josh Anderson’s one-handed dunk with just seconds remaining was the exclamation point as WKU held on for a 77-69 victory. Anderson finished with 12 points in his first game in Diddle Arena.

“He was huge,” Coleby said of Anderson. “He’s so long and athletic and he had some big plays tonight.”

The win improves WKU to 14-5 (6-0 C-USA) on the season. The Hilltoppers take on Middle Tennessee State (13-5, 5-1 C-USA) on Saturday in Diddle Arena. The Blue Raiders suffered their first C-USA loss of the year Thursday night against Marshall. The winner of Saturday’s game will take over first place in C-USA.

“It won’t be easy,” Stansbury said of MTSU. “We have to be able to handle some detail of what Middle is going to do. Middle is very good, they already went to UAB and won. Our guys have to be ready.”

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