Three-point shooting the difference as Hilltoppers fall to Belmont

WKU guard Darius Thompson (15) attacks the basket for a layup during WKU’s game vs. Nicholls State on Nov 19 in E.A. Diddle Arena. WKU won 100-86.

Sam Porter

The Western Kentucky men’s basketball team looked to add another impressive non-conference victory to their resume on Tuesday night when they hosted the Belmont Bruins, a team they had lost to three years in a row. Although the Hilltoppers outscored Belmont 52-20 in the paint, it wasn’t enough to keep up with Belmont’s success from 3-point range. The Bruins hit 14 3-pointers as WKU went just 1-12 from deep, and Belmont held off WKU 75-72 to give them their fourth win over WKU in four years.

Dylan Windler led Belmont with 19 points. Senior forward Justin Johnson, freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth, and junior guard Lamonte Bearden all scored 16 for WKU.

“I’ve played against that team for four years and they’ve done the same thing every time,” Johnson said. “They shoot a bunch of threes and pick you apart offensively. They do a really good job of finding weaknesses.”

The Hilltoppers nursed an early 12-10 lead eight minutes into the game as Johnson and graduate transfer Dwight Coleby combined for 10 points in the paint. Then Belmont began to find their rhythm from 3-point land. The Bruins went on a 15-4 run, highlighted by two Windler 3-pointers, to give Belmont a lead they would never give back. Freshman guard Jake Ohmer hit a layup to cut the deficit to 27-24 with 1:56 to play in the first half. But Nick Hopkins and Kevin McClain hit back-to-back 3-pointers towards the end of the half to help give Belmont a 33-26 halftime lead.

“I give Belmont a lot of credit. They make it hard and very difficult for you to play,” head coach Rick Stansbury said. “They take a lot out of you the way they play offensively. It seemed like every time we started to make a run, we never could make it over that hump.”

The Bruins stretched their lead to as much as 12 in the second half, but the Hilltoppers slowly clawed their way back into the game. Trailing 68-63, Ohmer missed a 3-pointer that bounced back in his direction. Ohmer and Belmont’s Dylan Windler went for the rebound and collided, sending both players to the ground. Ohmer was called for the blocking foul which very well could’ve gone either way. Ohmer redeemed himself on the following possession, driving with his right hand to capitalize on a bucket and draw a foul. After hitting the free throw, the Hilltoppers got a stop and Lamonte Bearden was fouled coming down with a rebound with WKU already in the bonus. The Buffalo transfer hit two free throws, and the game was tied with 1:28 to play in the second half.

But as they did many times throughout the game, the Bruins hit a big shot to put the pressure back on the Hilltoppers. Belmont’s Luke Austin found Amanze Egekeze on the right wing and Egekeze drilled a three to give Belmont a 71-68 lead with 41.2 seconds left. Egekeze finished the game with 15 points, including 3-5 from three point range.

“We can’t let their best shooter, Egekeze, catch that thing and shoot it,” Stansbury said. “He’s a guy that’s a catch and shoot guy. He’s not their best penetrator. We have to know personnel in those situations.”

Ohmer’s three to tie the game on the ensuing possession didn’t hit, and the Bruins hit their free throws and held on for a 75-72 victory.

WKU is back in action on Friday night when they travel to Austin Peay. WKU defeated APSU 97-92 in Diddle Arena last year. The road matchup will be the final non-conference game for WKU this season.

“There’s no question, playing this schedule has made us better in every way,” Stansbury said. “There haven’t been any cupcakes. We’ve played great competition pretty much every night, for the most part every night. We’ve been on the road against some good teams, we’ve been on neutral courts against good teams. It’s helped us, it’s given us a lot of confidence.”

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