Hilltoppers split homestand against conference powers

WKU junior forward Justin Johnson (23) struggles for the ball under the basket against MTSU junior guard Edward Simpson and other MTSU players during their game on Thursday, February 16. MTSU won the game with a score of 78-52.

Matthew Stewart

The past two games for the WKU men’s basketball team were on opposite ends of the basketball spectrum.

Both games were played in the friendly confines of Diddle Arena, but had vastly different outcomes. With less than 48 hours between the games, the Toppers completely transformed as a team.

Thursday, the Tops faced off against long-time rival and Conference USA front-runner Middle Tennessee.

If there was no Bowling Green massacre six years ago as Kellyanne Conway cited in a recent interview, there was one Thursday night in Diddle.

Earlier this season on Jan. 14, the Tops faced off against Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro and fell 91-76. Thursday night was no different, as the Blue Raiders walked out of Diddle with a 78-52 victory, dropping the Hilltoppers to 12-14 on the season.

“Come out of halftime, and you’re down 14 points, championship teams do what they did,” Head Coach Rick Stansbury said. “They come out and put a foot on your throat. That’s what championship teams do. They put a foot on our throat.”

MTSU Head Coach Kermit Davis said that was about as good as his team has played all year.

“I thought for the first seven or eight minutes, Western had the better energy,” Davis said.

Things turned around quickly, and the Hilltoppers couldn’t reach the 20-point mark in the first half. Heading into halftime the Raiders had built a comfortable 32-18 lead.

The lone positive from the first half was junior forward Justin Johnson’s nine boards heading in to intermission.

But once they got hit in the mouth, the Hilltoppers couldn’t “stop the bleeding” as Stansbury noted, and MTSU went up by as many as 32 with under 10 to play in the second half.

WKU, like MTSU, had three players scoring in double figures, but no Hilltopper notched more than 12.

Senior guard Pancake Thomas led the offensive attack with 12 points while going 4-5 from deep. Senior forward Anton Waters and freshman guard Tobias Howard each put up 11 of their own.

MTSU senior forwards JaCorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw led the way for the Raiders as they combined for 17 points in the first half. Both players finished their nights with a double-double performance. Williams went for 20 points and 10 rebounds and Upshaw with 19 and 11.

“[Williams] and Upshaw had 17 between them at halftime,” Stansbury said. “And a lot of those they just went and got. They beat us inside that paint.”

The crowd of 4,385 showed up in support of the Toppers, but quickly dispersed after the Blue Raider lead grew too large to overcome.

“We had more players play better today,” Davis said. “I thought we guarded at a high level. The changes of defenses bothered them, and then we got in transition in the second half, so that was a good road win for us.”

On Sunday, a completely different Hilltopper team showed up to play basketball.

This time the Tops were facing off against the Blazers from the Alabama Birmingham.

Earlier in the season on Jan. 12, UAB bested WKU by a final score of 72-54 in Birmingham.

The Hilltoppers weren’t going to lose three games in a row in Diddle, and they weren’t going to fall to the Blazers twice.

WKU was led by none other than junior forward Justin Johnson who was quiet in the matchup with MTSU.

Sunday afternoon the Hazard native powered the Tops to a convincing victory with a career high 26 points. In his stellar scoring performance, he was a force on the glass as well. Johnson grabbed 14 rebounds in the effort, just one short of his career high. The double-double performance was his sixth in the last seven games. Johnson went 12-17 from the floor, and his 12 made field goals were also a career high.

“[Justin] was a horse out there today now. He was finishing things today. He makes good decisions, and he’s finishing things around that hole,” Stansbury said.

The Toppers were in control from start to finish as the Blazers never led in the contest.

“We got off to a good start. Que [Johnson] made some shots early. I thought Junior did a really good job controlling the floor,” Stansbury said.

Senior guard Que Johnson put on an offensive showcase in the first half. The Washington State transfer went 5-5 from three point land and had 17 points heading in to halftime.

Senior point guard Junior Lomomba was the third Hilltopper to score in double figures in the game. The Montreal native finished with 10 points, three rebounds and four assists.

“Those are efficient stats. When [Junior] can be efficient like that, that can be another guy that adds to from a scoring standpoint,” Stansbury said.

The Tops struggled down low against Middle Tennessee and on Sunday they outscored UAB 40 to 18 in the paint and out-rebounded the Blazers by 10.

“We out-rebounded a team… last time they killed us in the paint. Today we beat them 40-18 in the paint,” Stansbury said. “We out-rebounded a big strong athletic team by 10.”

With the win the Tops improved to 13-14 on the year and 7-7 in league play. The team will be back in action this Thursday as they face off against the 49ers of Charlotte. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m.

“We gotta carry this confidence on the road,” Stansbury said.

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