Hilltoppers fall to Wildcats at Rupp Arena, funds raised for disaster relief

Kaden Gaylord-Day, Men's basketball reporter

A bad night of shooting and a record-setting rebound performance for junior Oscar Tshiewbe led to WKU (8-5) losing against Kentucky (9-2) 95-60, dropping its final game of non-conference play.

“Kentucky was just better. They were just better in every area,” head coach Rick Stansbury said. “They were the best team in the country today. Nobody would have beat them in here.”

The game was used as a means to raise money to help those affected by the tornadoes that struck Kentucky on Dec. 11. The charity portion of the event was a success.

Senior Josh Anderson led the Hilltoppers with 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting. Graduate Camron Justice followed with 13 and three rebounds. For the Wildcats, Tshiebwe had 14 points and his record-setting 28 rebounds. Graduate Kellan Grady finished with 23 points on 7-of-10 shooting.

The Hilltoppers came out the gates looking to make a statement as the Wildcats were introduced to junior center Jamarion Sharp early with the big man totaling three blocks within the first four minutes of the game. 

While playing well on defense, the offensive struggles stuck out like a sore thumb. WKU started 3-of-12 and 0-of-5 from behind the three-point line. It didn’t get much better from there as the offense wasn’t as fluid as it was in the previous game. A lot of isolation and pick and roll plays allowed Kentucky’s defense to force the Hilltoppers into bad, contested shots. 

Meanwhile, on the other side, Kentucky’s offense eventually found the holes in the 2-3 zone and took advantage of it. Whether it was finding Tshiebwe underneath the basket or Grady finding a hole on the perimeter, the Wildcats were able to pick apart the Hilltopper defense.

Not only did three-point shooting make a difference but the number of assists was a big discrepancy. At halftime, Kentucky dominated WKU in assists 12-4, leading to a 37-28 lead.

“They were really good at getting the ball out after misses and makes, pushing it up the floor,” Justice said. “They were resilient in getting the ball to the paint…they got the ball where they wanted to and made the pass to the open player.” 

A key matchup heading into the game was Tshiebwe against WKU big man Jamarion Sharp and the meeting didn’t disappoint. The two big men went at it for most of the game, both having eight points and a foul. Sharp had six rebounds and seven blocks. Tshiebwe also had 11 rebounds and two steals. Sharp went down midway through the second half and was taken to the locker room.  

WKU scored the first five points of the second half before the Wildcats took over for the rest of the game. In a five-minute span, Kentucky went on a 21-2 run while the Hilltoppers turned the ball over multiple times and just couldn’t hit shots. 

The Hilltoppers were prone on the defensive end with Sharp going down, giving up offensive rebounds that led to multiple second chance points opportunities for the Wildcats, making it nearly impossible for WKU to make a comeback. 

History was on the Wildcat’s side as Tshiebwe set a new record for most rebounds recorded inside of Rupp Arena. The benches cleared and WKU suffered its worst loss of the season.

“In games like this…it becomes more about the character of your team, and your culture,” Justice said. “Are guys gonna stick together? Are they going to start blaming one another? Everybody stuck together, [we] just kind of knew it wasn’t our night but we kept fighting.”  

The Hilltoppers were out-rebounded 50-27 and outscored in the paint 44-32. Kentucky finished with 27 assists while WKU only had five. The Hilltoppers shot 33% for the game and 15% from behind the arc. The Wildcats shot 56% from the field and 45% from behind the arc. 

WKU has now ended its non-conference slate of games and will begin Conference USA play right before the turn of the calendar. The Hilltoppers will take on Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg on Dec. 30. Game time is set for 7 p.m. CT.

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