The WKU men’s basketball team (9-5, 2-0 C-USA) returned to the hardwood for a quick turnaround on Saturday evening, and the Hilltoppers picked a 68-61 home win against Rice (8-7, 0-2 C-USA) to stay unbeaten in Conference USA play in Diddle Arena.
WKU’s seven-point victory marked its fourth consecutive win against Rice, and it also gave the Hilltoppers a 5-2 advantage in the all-time series against the Owls.
Head coach Rick Stansbury, who was 3-0 in his career against Rice prior to Saturday’s game, said his team was forced to see a zone-set defense for the first time in C-USA action.
“Let me tell you, in college basketball nowadays, anytime you win, it doesn't have to be pretty,” Stansbury said. “A W is a W. In our situation, it’s for sure pretty because we’re trying to play and learn new schemes, new personnel and all of that.”
The Hilltoppers had been outrebounded in three straight games since losing sophomore center Charles Bassey to a season-ending injury, but WKU outrebounded the Owls 37-36.
WKU also controlled the paint, as the Hilltoppers ended the game scoring 36 of their 68 points inside the paint. Rice finished the contest with 30 points in the paint.
Redshirt junior forward Carson Williams recorded 10 baskets in the paint on the way to his second double-double of the season, leading the Hilltoppers with 22 points and 13 rebounds.
Graduate guard Camron Justice added 13 points to reach double-digit scoring for the eight time this season in 31:44 of action.
“It’s really what we expect,” junior guard Josh Anderson said about Williams’ performance. “You know, every day, when Carson is in the gym, he puts more work in than anyone on our team, probably. So, it’s just what we expect from him.”
Rice struggled to hit shots from distance to begin the contest, but the Owls ended the game hitting eight 3-pointers compared to only six WKU makes from behind the line.
Senior forward Robert Martin only scored two points in the first half, but scored 11 second-half points to lead the Owls with 13 points on the afternoon.
Sophomore guard Trey Murphy III had 12 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block for Rice in 33:11 on the floor.
Martin won the opening tip for the Owls, but WKU scored the first points of the game when Williams grabbed an offensive rebound and finished a layup to give the Hilltoppers an early 2-0 lead at the 18:27 mark.
The Hilltoppers jumped out to a 9-0 lead at the first media timeout, as WKU forced the Owls to shoot 0 for 5 and turn the ball over three times by the 15:37 mark.
Rice scored its first points of the afternoon on a transition layup at the 14:39 mark, as Martin blocked redshirt senior wing Jared Savage’s shot and scored on the other end to cut the WKU lead to 9-2.
WKU continued to push its lead early, driving the ball into the paint and scoring 12 of its first 15 points in the paint. The Hilltoppers held a 15-4 lead at the 12:44 mark after junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth finished a reverse layup with his right hand.
After scoring 15 points in the first seven minutes, the Hilltoppers went scoreless for 2:12 of clock time until graduate guard Camron Justice scored in the lane on an out-of-bounds play.
Justice drained a 3-pointer on the next possession to extend the WKU lead to 17-7 at the 9:49 mark.
Rice began the contest shooting 0-for-7 from behind the 3-point line, but the Owls then hit back-to-back 3-pointers to trim the Hilltopper lead to 22-15.
WKU went on another scoring drought late in the first half, causing Rice to gain momentum and produce a 9-0 run that allowed the Owls to trail 22-18 at the 5:25 mark.
Williams checked back into the game soon after, and he used his low-post presence to end a WKU scoring drought of over three minutes.
The Owenton native gave the Hilltoppers the boost they needed to hold their lead late in the first half, as Williams swished a jumper on WKU’s next possession to expand the Hilltopper lead to 26-18 with 3:50 left in the half.
Rice had its own struggles from the field in the first half, as the Owls went 4:07 without a field goal. But a layup by senior guard Ako Adams cut the WKU lead to 26-21 with only 1:18 left in the first half of play.
On WKU’s next possession, Justice knocked down his third triple of the contest and gave the Hilltoppers a 29-21 lead with just a minute left in the half.
But another made layup by the feisty Rice offense would only allow the Hilltoppers to hold just a 29-23 advantage at the halftime break.
WKU controlled the pace of the game in the first half, as the Hilltoppers were able to get out in transition and scored 20 points in the paint.
Williams led the Hilltoppers in the first half, scoring 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the floor while also corralling six rebounds in 17 minutes of action.
Justice followed Williams with 11 points from the field during his 17 minutes on the court in the first half. The guard shot 4-of-10 from the floor during the first half, but he shot a consistent 3-of-5 from behind the line.
Williams and Justice led WKU to outshoot Rice in the first half, as the Hilltoppers shot 41.9% in the opening 20 minutes compared to the Owls only shooting 33.3% from the floor.
Adams led the way for the Owls, as the Washington D.C. native carried his team with seven first-half points.
Rice started the second half with the ball and scored on its opening possession when Martin picked up his fifth rebound of the game and went up for a layup.
Savage drained a 3-pointer on the other end to give WKU a 32-25 lead, but Martin scored again on Rice’s next possession to cut the WKU lead to just a five-point lead at the 18:57 mark.
Rice started the second half strong, scoring on its first five possessions to tie the game at 32-32.
Martin came out of the halftime break really aggressive offensively, as the 6-foot-6-inch forward scored eight points in the opening minutes of the second half.
The score was knotted at 36-36 until Williams scored a layup and Anderson finished a three-point play in transition to give WKU a 41-36 lead at the 15:04 mark.
Rice would score again to stay perfect from the floor in the second half at 7 for 7, but the Hilltoppers kept pushing the ball offensively.
The Owls evened the game up at 43-43, but Savage drained a 3-pointer to give the Hilltoppers a short lead. Rice matched WKU with a 3-pointer of its own at the 12:20 mark, bringing the game back to a 46-46 tie.
Freshman guard Jordan Rawls took it upon himself to give the Hilltoppers a much-needed boost, as he scored six consecutive points in a matter of 35 seconds to help WKU regain a 52-46 lead at the 10:43 mark.
WKU scored on three straight possessions to take a 54-48 lead, but Rice produced a 5-0 run to cut the Hilltopper advantage to just 54-53 with 8:25 remaining.
Williams grabbed another offensive rebound to keep a WKU possession alive, and he was able to reach the free-throw line for his first time of the afternoon. Williams converted both of his free throws to give WKU a 56-53 lead with 8:05 left in the contest.
Anderson led the Hilltoppers back to charity stripe, netted both of his foul shots and gave WKU a five-point advantage at the 7:48 mark.
Rice tied the game up against once more, this time mounting a 5-0 run to knot the score at 58-58 with 5:39 left in the game.
As the final media timeout approached, WKU struggled to score the ball — the Hilltoppers went over four minutes without a basket and shot 0 for 7 during that time frame.
But the score remained evened up at 58-58 for several minutes, as Rice missed six straight shots from the field, going scoreless for over three minutes.
WKU was the first to shatter its scoreless streak, as Williams fought for a loose ball and scored a layup to give the Hilltoppers a 60-58 lead with 3:04 remaining in the game.
Williams would score another layup with 1:35 left in the game to give the Hilltoppers a 62-58 advantage late.
Rice came close to ending its scoring drought when sophomore wing Drew Peterson attacked the rim with a right-handed layup, but Anderson denied him and gave WKU a slight edge in momentum going into the final 1:18 of the game.
The Owls forced WKU into a shot-clock violation with 50 seconds remaining, but Rice turned the ball over just 15 seconds later and gave the ball back to the Hilltoppers.
Rice was forced to play the free-throw game with 34.4 seconds remaining, as Anderson headed to the line and sank both of his shots to increase the Hilltopper lead to 62-56.
The Owls would then miss their eight straight shot from the field, which caused several Hilltopper fans to start chanting “warm up the bus” soon after Hollingsworth converted both of his shots from the free-throw line.
Murphy III ended Rice’s scoreless streak by hitting his fourth 3-pointer of the game, cutting WKU’s lead to 66-61 with 10.1 seconds remaining.
Savage was fouled and made both of his shots from the line, helping the Hilltoppers roll past the Owls by a seven-point margin and hand Rice its second straight loss to start off conference play.
Following the win, the Hilltoppers will travel to Birmingham, Alabama, before continuing C-USA play against Alabama-Birmingham (9-5, 0-1 C-USA) next week.
The Blazers opened league action on the road this weekend, tallying a 51-44 loss at Charlotte (8-5, 2-0 C-USA) on Thursday night.
Tipoff in Bartow Arena is set for 7 p.m. on Jan. 9. The game will be broadcast on Stadium.