WKU Basketball falls to UTSA in first round of C-USA tourney

WKU junior forward Justin Johnson (23) takes the ball up for a shot against Middle Tennessee State University sophomore forward Reggie Upshaw (30) during their game on Thursday, February 16. MTSU won with a score 78-52.

Matthew Stewart

Just like that the Conference USA tournament came and went for the WKU men’s basketball team.

The season has had its fair share of ups and downs, but the feeling around the Toppers was that they would be able to win at least one game in the tournament.

Wednesday morning the Tops tipped-off against the Road Runners of UTSA at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama.

The first half was not one to brag about for the WKU team. The team in red shot 23 percent from the field and finished the first half with just 20 points.

“I thought the difference in the game it never had no flow to it,” Head Coach Rick Stansbury said. “You all saw that. I mean it wasn’t pretty. Neither team scored very well. We were 23-20 at halftime I don’t know if we could play much worse offensively.”

The second half was even worse for the Toppers.

“We got some good looks as a team overall and we didn’t make many shots,” junior forward Justin Johnson said. “I don’t think we did a good job flowing tonight, these past two games we just flowed offensively.”

The game was back and forth for the beginning of the second half until the 14:06 mark when the Tops tied it up with the Roadrunners at 29.

UTSA quickly took the lead back. With 8:18 to go the Tops were ahead 40-39 and that was the last time they would lead.

“I think the momentum of the game was always in their hands,” senior forward Ben Lawson said. “I never felt like we took a breath and took control of the game, they did a really good job of playing their own style, playing within them-selves. I don’t think they took one bad shot really.”

The Roadrunners went up 48-41 with 5:00 to play and then the Toppers fought back. With 2:13 on the clock the Tops were down 48-47 and then things unraveled for WKU. 

“Ben was right, we never had control of the game to take the flow,” Stansbury said. “They had kinda control of the flow all night. We got that ball in around that post a bunch you know Anton is two for 10 Justin is five for 15 so you’re seven for 25 pretty close in there.”

UTSA would go up again by six before the Tops cut the lead to three at 55-52 with 19 seconds remaining. WKU would resort to the fouling game. UTSA missed five free throws in that time.

On one of the misses senior guard Que Johnson lost the rebound out of bounds resulting in another Roadrunner possession.

UTSA got the win over WKU with a final score of 56-52. With the win the Roadrunners earned themselves a game with top-seeded MTSU.

“Give San Antonio credit,” Stansbury said. “They found ways to make plays when they had to make plays tonight. That’s what you got to do this time of year.”

The only Hilltopper that put together a solid performance was junior forward Justin Johnson. The Hazard, Kentucky native finished with 15 points and 16 rebounds.

Johnson’s double-double performance was his 14th of the season and the 24th of his career.

The Roadrunners focused a lot of defense on Johnson causing him to take many contested shots. He finished the game going 5-15 from the floor.

“I shot terrible from the field so I’m gonna take a lot of the blame cause I missed shots that I make all day long,” Justin Johnson said. “I just wasn’t finishing like I normally finish and like I always finish. “I’ve seen that double team all year and I’ll take a big responsibility because when that double team comes it’s my job to find the open guy and get them shots, like I said I’ll take a lot of the blame.”

Stansbury made it very clear that Johnson was the spark that carried the team throughout the season.

“Make sure everybody understands this, we had no chance without this guy (Justin) beside us,” Stansbury said. “He’s taking a lot of the blame but it ain’t his fault ever. This guy right here still gives us 16 rebounds and that’s effort. We wouldn’t be in this situation at all if it wasn’t for him for sure.”

Senior guards Pancake Thomas and Junior Lomomba were the only other Hilltoppers to finish with double figures.

Thomas had 12 points on three of eight shooting in 35 minutes of play. Lomomba, on the other hand, went for 10 points, four rebounds, an assist and a steal in his 33 minutes on the court.

“Offensively I still think we got good looks, some days it just doesn’t happen for us,” Lawson said.

WKU went 17-56 from the floor, good for 30 percent. The Tops were lackluster at the charity stripe, shooting 15-22.

Despite the loss, Stansbury was happy with what his team was able to accomplish this season given the circumstances in April. The team had zero scholarship guards and three players returning that had ever played.

“All I wanted was an opportunity this year to compete, have an opportunity to compete,” Stansbury said. “And ya’ll know what it could have been. I can say for the most part… we went in most games this year believing we had a chance to win. That’s about all I could have asked.”

Some would say that it’s too early to look to next season for the WKU basketball program, but it may be all there is to do.

Stansbury will be out recruiting the top talent to add to his already highly touted 2017 class highlighted by Mitchell Robinson, LaMonte Bearden, Josh Anderson, and Taveion Hollingsworth.

“We’re gonna get it back,” Stansbury said. “We gotta keep getting some pieces but if you ask me are we better off this April than we were last April, you guys know the answer to that for sure. We gotta keep getting better off every April, that’s where we’re headed.”