No Regrets: Hilltoppers end season after conference tournament run

WKU’s forward Justin Johnson (23) shoots over Old Dominion’s forward Brandan Stith (25) during the semifinals of the C-USA tournament on Friday at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Ala. Mike Clark/HERALD

Matthew Stewart

The WKU men’s basketball team’s season ended over the weekend when the Hilltoppers lost to Old Dominion 89-77 in the Conference-USA Tournament semifinals.

“We were a team today,” Head Coach Ray Harper said after the loss. “That’s what we became, and that’s what I am most proud of.”

During their stint in the tournament in Birmingham this past week, the Toppers showed the heart and perseverance they have been building all season.

WKU played in three games in the C-USA tournament, winning two and dropping the final game of their season to the Monarchs.

In the first game of the tournament, the Toppers took on the North Texas Mean Green. WKU pulled out a strong win in a game it was able to control from start to finish.

Freshman point guard Chris McNeal dished out nine assists against the Mean Green defenders while putting up nine points of his own.

“Chris was passing the ball, making the right passes,” sophomore forward Justin Johnson said.

Redshirt senior forward Nigel Snipes had a solid game going 4-7 from 3-pointer range and putting up 16 points in the contest.

Snipes came off the bench and hit a three to get the crowd in the game. This helped WKU go on a run that ended with the Toppers up 40-28 at the half.

The Toppers came out of the intermission picking up right where they left off. WKU shot 59 percent from the field on the day as well as 73 percent from the charity stripe compared to a 47 percent performance from North Texas.

Johnson was the leading scorer for WKU, coming away with 17 points to go along with 10 rebounds and one assist.

Johnson might have been the high man on the stat sheet, but Harper highlighted another player who made a difference for the team.

“Our player of the game today was Ben Lawson. We felt like his presence on the defensive end really made a difference,” Harper said.

Lawson finished with 10 points, six rebounds and four blocks.

With the win over North Texas, the Tops earned themselves a date with the top-seeded Blazers of UAB.

WKU looked like a team on a mission to get to the NCAA tournament as soon as it stepped on the court; it defeated the hometown favorite 88-77.

The Toppers were able to take the game right to UAB in the first half. Johnson led the team in scoring and almost nabbed a double-double in the first half with nine points and eight rebounds.

The Toppers were able to go up by 11 points in the first half while shooting 45 percent from the field.

In the second half, the Blazers came out to score the first five points to make the score 39-33, but the Toppers scored six quick baskets of their own.

WKU shot even better in the second half going 60 percent from the field.

Five Hilltoppers, including Lawson, scored in double figures in the contest. Junior guard Fredrick Edmond led the way with 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Snipes finished with 18 points going 4-7 from the 3-point range.

Johnson put together his 10th double-double of the season finishing with 14 points and 15 rebounds. Redshirt senior guard Aaron Cosby put up 12 points.

After taking down the tournament favorite, the next opponent for the Toppers was Old Dominion. However, Monarch guard Trey Freeman came to play.

The Toppers put up a good fight for most of the contest as they were able to lead at halftime 35-32, holding Freeman to just eight points in the half.

“We had it right there in front of us. We had opportunities, and [Freeman] made tough and contested shots,” Harper said.

The second half was an entirely different story. Freeman scored 34 in the second half, ending the night with 42 points. Freeman’s total broke the record for most points scored in a C-USA tournament game.

“Some of those shots, I had my hand right in [Freeman’s] face or two hands in his face. I tip my hat to him for making those,” Cosby said, according to Zach Greenwell of the Bowling Green Daily News.

WKU had four players finish with double figures in the scoring column. Cosby finished with 21 points on 7-13 from the field. Snipes had a big game, going 6-11 from deep and putting up 18 points.

Snipes was recognized for his outstanding play in the tournament as he was named to the C-USA all-tournament team.

“I have no regrets,” Snipes said. “I felt like I played as hard as I could and did everything I possibly could. I think next year’s team is going to be amazing. They’ve already got the gelling going, so I feel like that won’t be an issue.”

Ed. note: A quote used in this story previously lacked proper attribution. The quote has been correctly attributed to Zach Greenwell of the Bowling Green Daily News. The Herald regrets the error.