Hilltoppers fall to rival MTSU on the road

Junior forward Justin Johnson (23) drives to the basket during the Hilltoppers 79-66 win over Alabama State on Nov. 12, 2016 at Diddle Arena.

Matthew Stewart

Saturday night the WKU men’s basketball team faced off against the first place team in Conference USA, Middle Tennessee State University.

Saturday night the blue team in the “hundred miles of hate” rivalry ousted the Hilltoppers by a final score of 91-76. With the loss, WKU fell to 9-10 on the year and 3-3 in conference play.

Last year, Blue Raiders head coach Kermit Davis led his squad to a C-USA tournament championship. After taking home the trophy in Birmingham, MTSU continued their winning ways in the NCAA tournament, knocking off a second-seeded Michigan State team as a 15 seed.

MTSU has picked up right where it left off last year. The Blue Raiders are rolling with a 15-3 record this year. Not only have they gone 5-0 in conference play but they have a record that boasts wins over Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.

“Give Middle Tennessee a lot of credit,” WKU head coach Rick Stansbury said. “There’s no question they’re the best team in this league. They are well coached. They play hard. They have good pieces, a lot of good pieces and you can tell they are a veteran basketball team. They don’t make many mistakes.”

The Raiders came out hot in the first half. Heading in to halftime MTSU was up 14 points, 46-32, with 13 points from redshirt senior JaCorey Williams. MTSU would go up by as many as 19 points with 6:12 to go in the first half.

“It’s very obvious, we got hit in the mouth early in that game and had opportunities to fold up and could’ve laid down, could’ve been ugly today,” Stansbury said. “In the last game in the second half against UAB we did that. I was proud of our guys’ effort today. We found ways to keep fighting.”

The Hilltoppers came out of the intermission shooting well. WKU shot 65.4 percent from the field in the second half while going for 60.4 percent in the contest. WKU cut the Blue Raider lead to nine with 13:56 to play in regulation.

Turnovers and missed free throws kept the Tops behind the pace that Middle was able to score. WKU shot 12-22 at the line, amounting to a 58.8% game free throw percentage.

“Effort will overcome a lot of things,” Stansbury said. “We still turned the ball over. We still missed free throws. We’re not good enough to go on the road and have as many of those that we had and beat a quality team like Middle Tennessee.”

The shooting from MTSU was even better, and eventually controlled the game for the Blue Raiders. In the second half, MTSU shot 66.7 percent from the field and 62.1 percent for the game.

MTSU’s Williams finished as the game’s leading scorer with 27 points. WKU didn’t seem to have an answer for him all night.

“They get him the ball in space,” WKU junior forward Justin Johnson said. “They do a really good job of running their offense around him. He’s a really good player.”

Senior guard Pancake Thomas led the Hilltoppers with 23 points going 7-13 from the floor. Johnson and senior guard Que Johnson were the only other Hilltoppers to get in double figures with 13 and 17 points, respectively.

Junior forward Tyler Miller played in the last outing against UAB and got in for 13 minutes against the Raiders. Stansbury said he is pleased with Miller’s effort and comfortable with having him in the rotation.

“He’s in it cause of toughness,” Stansbury said. “Toughness is the greatest ability you can have. I’m good with Tyler. I watch Tyler every day play hard and play tough. I can live with outcomes of the games where you feel like everybody out there is giving you everything they got and he does that every possession.”

After the game, Stansbury made it clear that redshirt sophomore  forward Willie Carmichael would no longer be a part of the team. The Tennessee transfer Carmichael was not with the team on Saturday in Murfreesboro. 

“He’s (Carmichael) no longer part of the team,” Stansbury said. “I sent him back home Friday morning. Just attitude that’s not an acceptable part of this team.”

 When asked whether he might transfer Stansbury said, ”I don’t have any idea, but he’ll be no longer a part of this team.”

The Hilltoppers are back in action when they take on Marshall on Saturday Jan. 21 in Huntington. Tip-off is set for 5 p.m.