Hilltoppers fall short against Minnesota, McKnight puts up 34 points

Hilltopper+sophomore+guard+Dayton+McKnight+%2820%29+brings+the+ball+across+half+court+against+Alabama+State+University+Hornets%E2%80%99+Isaiah+Range+%2840%29+in+Diddle+Arena+during+their+game+on+Nov.+9%2C+2021.

Marshall C. Canupp

Hilltopper sophomore guard Dayton McKnight (20) brings the ball across half court against Alabama State University Hornets’ Isaiah Range (40) in Diddle Arena during their game on Nov. 9, 2021.

Kaden Gaylord-Day, Men's basketball question

WKU (1-1) lost to Big Ten opponent Minnesota (2-0) 73-69 in the Hilltoppers’ first round of action in the 2021 Asheville Championship. 

WKU was once again without Keith Williams and Zion Harmon and was also lacking Camron Justice, who was granted an extra year of eligibility this week. The rotation was minimal with the starters playing most of the minutes.

Sophomore Dayvion McKnight led the way with 34 points on 10-of-16 shooting, going 13-for-14 from the free throw line. Senior Jairus Hamilton had 12 points and six rebounds. Jamison Battle led the Gophers with 20 points and six boards. 

“They made a lot of tough shots down the stretch, a lot of shots we had guys right in their faces and they were just knocking down big shots time after time,” fifth-year guard Josh Anderson said after the game.

It was another night of first half struggles. Minnesota came out the gate hot by taking a 11-2 lead with an early 9-0 run. 

The quality of shot taking between the two teams was like night and day. The Hilltoppers were settling for contested shots while the Gophers were making easy ones. For the next five minutes both teams went cold, combining for 1-of-11 shooting as WKU pulled within one possession. 

“For one we need to come out more aggressive from the start of the game,” Anderson said. “We can’t get down in the first half. We’ve got to finish out the half strong and start the half strong.”

Battle led the first half attack for the Gophers, scoring 18 first half points and shooting 5-9 from behind the three-point line. 

As the Hilltoppers brought the deficit down to two possessions, the Gophers went on a 10-2 run to close the half, highlighted by a buzzer beater from behind the arc to push the lead back to double digits as they took a 35-23 lead into the locker room. 

WKU only took three free throws in the first half and made just one of them. Minnesota had assists on seven of its made 12 shots compared to WKU’s four assists on its 10 shots. 

Like the first game of the season against Alabama State, WKU started the second half better than the first, but a lack of defense allowed Minnesota to match WKU’s scoring and make easy shots at the rim. 

“You have to control the game some offensively, we didn’t do a very good job of that [in the] first half at all,” head coach Rick Stansbury said. “Second half was much better. I thought we were a lot more effective at getting the ball in the paint… first half you score 23 points, second half you score 46 – you’ve got to find that balance between the both of those.”

Hamilton picked up his fourth foul with 13 minutes left in the game, neutralizing him for just about the rest of the night. 

From the 13:40 mark to the 7:59 mark, Minnesota didn’t make a single field goal, but fouls committed by the Hilltoppers allowed the Gophers to get to the free throw line and keep the lead at double digits. 

WKU wouldn’t give up, clawing its way back into the game. McKnight scored 13 straight points for WKU at one point, but every time momentum seemed to be on the Hilltoppers’ side, the Gophers would snatch it right back. 

McKnight put the team on his back, captaining a run that would bring the Hilltoppers within three with 30 seconds left. 

“I was just worried about coming back and trying to win the game today,” McKnight said. “Playing for my teammates, trying to find them open shots and get them to the free throw line as much as they can.”

The Hilltoppers had a chance to tie the game but missed the three pointer. A putback by Hamilton brought them within two. Minnesota iced the game with free throws, taking the win 73-69. 

WKU will move on to play the loser of South Carolina vs Princeton. That game will take place Sunday evening at 4 p.m. CT.

Men’s basketball reporter Kaden Gaylord-Day can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @_KLG3.