WKU’s team effort just enough to stay undefeated in conference play

Freshman forward Justin Johnson (23) goes for a layup against Bowling Green State’s Richaun Holmes (22) during WKU’s game against the Falcons on Dec. 3. Johnson totaled seven points, three rebounds, and two blocks in 20 minutes of action in the Hilltoppers’ 62-52 victory. Brandon Carter/HERALD

Billy Rutledge

Another second half comeback allowed the Hilltoppers (12-5, 5-0 C-USA) to secure their seventh straight victory and defeat Florida International 65-58. WKU has now started conference play 5-0 for the first time since 1993-94 and has defeated both FAU and FIU for the first time since 2011.

After a lackluster first half that had WKU and FIU (9-9, 2-3 C-USA) tied at 24, WKU’s defense and post play exploded. Senior forward George Fant picked up his sixth straight double-double performance scoring 20 points and 11 rebounds and freshman forward Justin Johnson came off the bench to go five-for-five from the field and score 11 points all in the second half. 

The play of the bigs combined with the well-known full court press defense imposed by Head Coach Ray Harper allowed WKU to go on an 18-2 run, including 13 straight points that allowed the Hilltoppers to take a 52-43 lead with 7:43 to play. WKU forced eight second half turnovers, 13 total, to achieve their fifth road win of the season.

“The first half, we didn’t move the ball, we took too many bad shots, we took too many quick shots and forgot about George (Fant) in the post a little bit,” Harpers said on the IMG Hilltoppers Sports Netwrok. “I thought Ben (Lawson) gave us a great effort, in the second half…I thought Justin (Johnson) was terrific. We got a little better ball movement in the second half but I thought the difference in the game was our full court pressure…We went to the full court and it really caused a problem for them.”

Besides Fant and Johnson, no other Hilltopper scored double digit points, but six other WKU players did score. WKU used 25 bench points and 14 assists to overcome shooting 34 percent (20-58) from the field including a 17.6 percent (3-17) from three point range.

Senior guard T.J. Price struggled after injuring both ankles in WKU’s win over FAU Thursday. Price scored nine points and was two-of-seven from the field while grabbing eight rebounds. Harper said after the game that it was one guy, who didn’t always get the most attention, that fired his team up at halftime.

“The igniter for us tonight, and he is for us on most nights…is Trency Jackson,” Harper said. “Woah guys I’m just telling you if you could have been in that huddle and in that locker room he was the igniter for us on the defensive end.   

Jackson ended the game two-of-eight from the field with six points. The Panthers had three players post double digit points including Dennis Mavin who scored 21 points. Daviyon Draper scored 15 points and grabbed 11 rebounds but was unable to keep FIU from blowing a seven point lead early in the first half.

The Hilltoppers next game will be Jan. 22 at Diddle Arena against conference foe UTEP. WKU will be retiring Courtney Lee’s jersey during the game and Harper expects Hilltoppers fans will be in full support next Thursday.

“I can’t imagine us not having a packed house on Thursday night,” Harper said. “You’re playing one of the most historic programs in our league other than ourselves and UTEP, you have a team that hasn’t done something since 1992-93 and start the season with five straight conference wins…We are retiring Courtney Lee’s jersey on Thursday night so I hope everyone comes out and honors Courtney and honors this basketball team for how they play the game. They play hard, they play together and they really showed some resilience on this trip.”