Hilltoppers fall to Belmont 90-69 in Nashville

WKU guard Pancake Thomas (12) dives to fight for the ball from Kentucky Wesleyan College Ken-Jah Bosley (11) during the Hilltoppers 103-97 double overtime win over Kentucky Wesleyan College on Saturday Nov. 5, 2016 at E.A. Diddle Arena.

Matthew Stewart

After a competitive first half, the WKU basketball team (2-1) couldn’t keep up with Belmont University down the stretch as the Hilltoppers fell to the Bruins by a final score of 90-69.

“Second half, fatigue gets to ya,” Head Coach Rick Stansbury said. “The defense is away from ya. We wasn’t near as effective in the second half. I wanna make sure that guys don’t cave in to fatigue, cave in to that score. I didn’t think we responded the way we gotta respond. It’s a fine margin on the road.”

Belmont head coach Rich Byrd also noticed that his opponent seemed to be a little winded in the second half.

“It’s a good win for us because I think Western Kentucky has got a good basketball team,” Byrd said. “I felt like that our depth was a big plus. They’ve got five or six really good basketball players that are ready to play and then they just got inexperience after that. They are trying to play those guys a whole lot of minutes because that’s their best chance of winning which is tough.”

The Tops came out in the first half playing efficient basketball as the team managed to score at will. WKU was up by 11 points with 12:38 to play in the first half.

“I thought for the first 20 minutes we were really efficient offensively and that’s why the game gave us a chance at halftime only down three,” Stansbury said.

“They (WKU) were scoring at will, I think they had 26 at the second media timeout,” Byrd said. “They were well into over 100 points a game at that point.”

Down three points at the half, WKU hung tough with the Bruins for the first stretch in the second half and then Belmont turned it on offensively while getting defensive stops at the same time.

“The second half, when they made some shots, I thought we panicked,” Stansbury said. “I didn’t think we had no poise about us. We started trying to get it back individually. We started trying to get it back too quickly. That’s the last thing you can do on the road.”

The Hilltoppers’ first defeat on the year came to a talented, experienced team that has played and won in the NCAA tournament in year’s past . Stansbury praised the talent of the Bruins after the game.

“They’re a good team, when they shoot it like that they’re really good” Stansbury explained. “I have good young men. We got beat by a good team. There are a lot of things we didn’t do very well and we gotta learn from that. You can’t let your offensive production affect the way you play defense.”

The trip to Nashville was a learning opportunity for a WKU team that has nine of its first 12 games on the road.

“We’ve gotta learn to play with a lot of poise on the road,” Stansbury said. “It’s just where it is. We got a lot of opportunities to go on the road; we’re gonna be on the road a bunch. We can’t let environments and teams speed you up. That happened way too much tonight.”

The environment in the Curb Event Center played a big role as well. The loud atmosphere created by fan support did not go unnoticed by the Hilltoppers.  

“Their fans got louder every three they made, they got louder and louder,” redshirt senior guard Que Johnson.

The WKU players were also impressed with the way that Belmont managed to shoot the ball.

“It was tough. Everybody on their team could shoot, they have great players. It was hard to come off the bigs cause they could shoot so well,” Q. Johnson said.

“Everyone knows that the Belmont coach he’s a tremendous coach and he’s built this team over the years to the point where everybody on the team can shoot it and you get to the point where you have a five man that can move as well as Bradds can and it causes problems,” senior forward Ben Lawson said.

When the Hilltoppers were able to control the tempo of the game which they successfully did in the first half, they had the upper hand in the matchup.

“I think when we ran our motion and ran our sets and executed I think it was really good for us, just moving the ball and getting the right looks,” Lawson said. “When we control the game that’s when we are gonna be at our best.”  

Junior forward Justin Johnson was the leading scorer for the Hilltoppers in the contest with 17 points on seven of 11 shooting from the field while also connecting on three of four shots from long range.

“Justin Johnson obviously has the green light and is confident, feels like he can make threes now, when Waters stepped out there and made one, I thought we’re really in trouble now if those guys are gonna make those shots,” Byrd said.

Que Johnson was the only other Topper in double figures as he finished the night with 14 points, two rebounds, one steal and an assist. Senior forwards Anton Waters and Lawson each put up nine points.

The Hilltoppers are back in Diddle on Tuesday night to meet with North Carolina A&T. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.