WKU’s comeback attempt falls short against Marshall

Matthew Stewart

The last time WKU faced off against Marshall in late January, the Hilltoppers held a 14-point advantage in the first half before falling to the Thundering Herd by the same margin, 94-80. That game was played in Huntington, West Virginia.

The Tops squared off once again with Marshall Saturday evening, this time in Diddle Arena. Just like the venue was different, so was the turn of events.

The first half opened up well for the Herd. Marshall started the game 5-5 from three-point range. The Herd had two players in double figures in the first half as Jon Elmore and Austin Loop had 17 and 11 points, respectively. No Topper scored more than eight in the first.

“You can’t dig yourself a hole,” junior forward Justin Johnson said. “I mean they were hitting shots, but still. You have to get a hand in their face, you can’t let anything affect you.”

The highlight of the first half for the Toppers was something that didn’t necessarily affect the game on Saturday, but held some significance for WKU. Justin Johnson scored his 1,000th career point in the first half while finishing with eight points and five boards in the half.

“It’s definitely a personal goal,” Justin Johnson said. “As a kid you dream of scoring 1,000 points in high school. To do it in college, glory to God for that, letting me stay healthy for the three years. It’s a personal accomplishment, but I just want to win basketball games, and I’m going to do what I can to help this team win games.”

With 13:09 to play in the second half, WKU trailed by 23. But the Toppers turned things around and began a vicious attempt at a comeback. Sophomore forward Jabari McGhee brought life to the building with a dunk that cut the Marshall lead to 11 with 9:32 to go.

“We just started playing, playing harder,” senior guard Que Johnson said. “Everyone was playing with energy. I think Jabari came off the bench and gave us great energy in the second half – that really sparked it.”

The crowd got behind the Toppers and the momentum mounted up in favor of the home team as time ticked down.

“The crowd was great,” Head Coach Rick Stansbury said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t give them a lot to cheer about for the first 30 minutes. We had a great crowd. Once we started playing a little bit and gave them something to cheer for, there’s no question. There’s a lot of energy in the building, a lot of emotion, and that’s why we were able to get back in there.”

With 1:24 left to play, Que Johnson hit a three ball that cut the Marshall lead to six. Marshall missed a three, and once again, Que Johnson knocked down a three with 51 seconds remaining.

Thirty-five seconds later, the clock showed 16 seconds remaining and the scoreboard read 82-79 in favor of Marshall. Que Johnson dribbled right at the top of the key and drew contact from the defender as he attempted to make his third clutch three-pointer.

The shot didn’t fall, but the Toppers did.

Marshall ended the night with the upper hand, taking down the Toppers by a final score of 84-79. With the loss, WKU fell to 12-13 on the season and 6-6 in conference play.

Que Johnson led the offensive attack for the Toppers, finishing with 17 points on 60 percent shooting from the floor. Justin Johnson notched the only double-double performance in the game. The Hazard native finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds for his fifth straight double-double.

“Justin’s the guy we’re going to get that ball to,” Stansbury said. “They made a concerted effort tonight to try and front him in that post and keep him from getting as much. Again, when you get down a little bit, you don’t have the same patience in getting that ball to the post, and that’s the thing you can’t have right there.”

The real star of the game was Marshall’s Jon Elmore. The talented guard finished with 32 points, going 5-7 from deep and 10-16 from the field. Elmore also had nine rebounds and four assists.

The Toppers are back in action this Thursday when they take on the top team in Conference USA. The Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee will be looking to improve to 23-4 overall and 13-1 in C-USA. MTSU took down the Toppers 91-76 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, earlier this season. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m.

Reporter Matthew Stewart can be reached at 859-797-3140 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @MES_WKU22.