Hilltoppers grind out win after close conference battles

John Reecer

It wasn’t pretty, but WKU (13-14) earned a 59-54 victory over the University of North Carolina, Charlotte in front of a home crowd after trailing by as many as 18 points Saturday afternoon. 

The victory came after Old Dominion University bested the Hilltoppers by a final score of 59-56 Thursday in Diddle Arena. 

Saturday’s contest featured sloppy play from both teams as they combined to commit 38 turnovers and made only 37 shots. The Toppers also shot only 30 percent from the field in the matchup; Charlotte was able to shoot 51 percent.  

For the Hilltoppers, the victory was welcome as they had previously lost three straight home matchups in very close fashion. 

“It felt good to finally finish one,” redshirt senior guard Aaron Cosby said. “We have showed we can play with just about anybody, but we have had trouble closing out, so this was a good win.” 

Cosby managed to score seven of the Hilltoppers’ last nine points, including a critical 3-point shot with 39 seconds left that gave WKU a four-point lead. 

“That’s what fifth-year seniors are supposed to do,” Head Coach Ray Harper said. “Guys like Chris McNeal and Marlon [Hunter] who are freshmen shouldn’t have to make plays like that down the stretch. It should be your older, veteran guys.” 

Overall, the game was a tale of two halves. The 49ers lead the Toppers in the first half by 13 points. However, Charlotte only scored 20 points in the second half, and WKU won that period by 18 points. 

One big reason the Hilltoppers won despite shooting only 30 percent is that the 49ers turned the ball over a total of 24 times in the game. Most of these turnovers came in the second period. 

Leading WKU in scoring on the afternoon was Cosby and redshirt senior forward Nigel Snipes as both netted 12 points. Sophomore forward Justin Johnson scored 11 points while also grabbing five rebounds. 

Another advantage the Toppers had over the 49ers was from the free-throw line, where WKU went 21-26 while Charlotte only made six free throws on 12 attempts. 

Unlike Saturday, Thursday’s matchup saw the Hilltoppers fall down the stretch as they led 56-52 with 2:11 remaining. 

However, the Toppers failed to score another bucket as Monarch guard Trey Freeman hit two go-ahead free throws to seal the victory for Old Dominion. 

 “We got too many possessions without buckets. You got to have someone that really wants the ball and can go score it in those situations,” Harper said. 

Freeman was the high scorer in the game on Thursday as the guard scored 26 points on 11-27 shooting. 

Cosby was again the leading scorer for the Hilltoppers as he scored 15 points. Senior forward Aleksej Rostov and junior guard Fredrick Edmond both scored 10 points.

On Thursday and Saturday, respectively, the Hilltoppers will travel to Middle Tennessee and the University of Alabama, Birmingham to take on the current top two teams in Conference USA. A pair of victories for WKU would shoot the Hilltoppers up the standings and prepare the team for the postseason.  

“We are starting to be a team that can get stops on the defensive end,” Harper said. “Now we go on the road and get the two top dogs [teams] in the league. We are going to see where we are at heading into the tournament.”