Hilltoppers fall to FIU after losing late lead

Redshirt junior guard Chris Harrison-Docksdrives the ball during the second half of WKU’s against Florida International on Thursday. Harrison-Docks scored 15 in WKU’s 75-72 loss. Jennifer King/HERALD

Matthew Stewart

The WKU men’s basketball team (8-7) opened up home Conference-USA play with a loss Thursday night in Diddle Arena as they fell to Florida International University (8-7) 75-72.

Coming off of a 94-76 blowout loss to Marshall in the first C-USA game of the season, Head Coach Ray Harper said that there would be many changes moving forward.

For the first time this season the Hilltoppers used the starting lineup comprised of freshmen guards Chris McNeal and Marlon Hunter, senior guard Aaron Cosby and junior and senior forwards Anton Waters and Aleksej Rostov.

This new starting five turned into a positive aspect for WKU as the Hilltoppers lead for most of the first half.

Hunter sparked the WKU offense with three early jump shots in the first three minutes of the game which gave the Hilltoppers an 11-6 lead at the 15:56 mark.

Shortly after WKU’s quick start the home crowd for the Hilltoppers witnessed the beginning of what would turn out to be a big night off the bench for sophomore forward Justin Johnson.

Johnson scored a soaring put-back dunk and a fast break slam which set the tone for the WKU offensive tempo in the half.

With time winding down in the first half, junior guard Chris Harrison-Docks went on a run of his own from three point range. With 4:08 left in the half, Harrison-Docks hit his first three of the game, followed by two more to ensure the game was tied heading in to halftime.

WKU managed to maintain solid play on the offensive side coming out of the half. Johnson  set a new career high in points with 25 to go along with seven rebounds on the evening. He also shot 11-11 from the free-throw line.

Harrison-Docks continued to shoot well, going five of 12 from beyond the arc and McNeal continued to distribute the ball effectively as he notched six assists on the evening.

The Hilltoppers managed to hold off the Panthers for much of the second half, as they held an 11-point lead at one point. However, WKU seemed to lower their intensity level down the stretch as FIU continued to make plays.

“We quit attacking, we started playing east to west and settling for jump shots with no ball movement,” Head Coach Ray Harper said. “You have to have a sense of urgency to get a stop. If you get a lead to 10 the way you build it to 16 or 18 is you have to get defensive stops. You have to have a sense of urgency.”

With 2:29 left in the game, FIU scored 10 straight to win and get the best of the Hilltoppers 75-72. 

“It’s like we relaxed. We can’t extend the lead, we allow teams to come right back,” said Harper. 

The Hilltoppers drop to 8-7 on the year and 0-2 in conference play. Harper and company will look to get back in the win column as they play Florida Atlantic University on Saturday. The game will tip at 2 p.m. at Diddle Arena.

“We need to get back on the winning track,” Coach Harper said. “We have to find a way to get this thing right and it has to start somewhere. I was hoping to get it right tonight, but hopefully we can get it right on Saturday.”