The WKU men’s basketball team (6-1) led by 15 points at halftime against Fordham (4-2) on Monday, but the Hilltoppers were forced to hold on in the final seconds to defeat the Rams 69-64 in the fourth-place game of the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam tournament.
The Hilltoppers bounced back from an opening-round loss against Bowling Green on Friday and went on to win two straight contests by improving their free-throw shooting performance in the UVI Sports and Fitness Center in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.
After shooting just 60.7% from the line in the first game of the tournament, WKU improved in its next two outings.
The Hilltoppers shot 85% from the charity stripe against Illinois State on Saturday and Fordham on Monday to close out the early-season Paradise Jam event on a positive note.
“You know, you want your team to have that maturity and toughness to come out and put a foot on someone’s throat,” head coach Rick Stansbury said. “But give Fordham some credit too, though. You know, they played good. It’s not like they’re a bad team. They beat Grand Canyon last night by 10, and Grand Canyon beat Illinois State. We all know how good of a team Illinois State is.”
As a team, WKU shot 43.1% from the floor while hitting 8-of-21 shots from behind the arc. The Hilltoppers didn’t just rely on their outside ability, as they outrebounded the Rams 40-25 and tied them with 24 points in the paint.
Sophomore center Charles Bassey led the Hilltoppers, shooting 10 for 10 from the free-throw line. He picked up his fourth double-double in just his seventh game of the season by scoring 24 points and gathering 12 rebounds.
Graduate guard Camron Justice hit four first-half 3-pointers on his way to a career-high 23 points, and he also drained a career-high six 3-pointers.
“They definitely tightened their defense a lot more in the second half,” Justice said. “They really didn’t want me to get any looks. They really had a guy chasing me up and down the floor the entire time. But I thought Charles Bassey was the difference in the game in the second half. I mean, he really made his presence known, and I really thought he was what got us over the hump when they started making that run.”
Fordham struggled to slow down Bassey and Justice, but the Rams did force the Hilltoppers into 17 turnovers, which led to 29 points on the other end. The Rams only turned the ball over eight times in their loss to WKU.
Senior guard Antwon Portley gave the Rams a boost in the second half, scoring 13 second-half points to give him a total of 17 points in 36 minutes of action.
Sophomore guard Ty Perry stepped up off the bench and added 14 points, while shooting 4-of-6 from the three-point line. Coming into the game, Perry was just 1-of-8 from distance through five games.
The Rams scored the first basket of the game when senior guard Erten Gazi knocked down a jumper to give his team an early 2-0 advantage. Fordham would go on to score on its next possession to hold a 4-0 lead in the first 2:10 of action.
WKU finally got on the scoreboard after 3:07 of action when freshman guard Jordan Rawls checked into the game and found Bassey in the paint for a layup. The Hilltoppers scored on their next possession to tie the game 5-5 at the 16:26 mark.
The Hilltoppers gained their first lead just seven minutes into the game when Justice hit his second 3-pointer of the afternoon to give WKU a 10-7 lead.
WKU started to gain a rhythm from the floor, as the Hilltoppers doubled Fordham’s score when senior forward Matt Horton grabbed an offensive rebound and finished a layup to give the Hilltoppers a 14-7 at the 11:27 mark.
Justice stayed hot from distance in the first half, as he knocked down his third consecutive 3-pointer at the 10:13 mark to increase WKU’s lead to 19-7.
The Hilltoppers held the Rams scoreless for more than seven minutes in the first half, helping WKU mount a 14-0 run. Perry would end WKU’s run when he hit a 3-pointer to cut the WKU lead to 19-10 at the 8:19 mark.
After WKU held a 19-7 lead in the earlier portion of the first half, Fordham regathered itself to chip away at WKU’s lead and made it a 21-19 game with 5:34 remaining in the half.
The Hilltoppers responded by going on a 6-0 run to increase their lead to 27-19 at the 2:43 mark in the first half.
WKU expanded its lead to 32-21 at the 1:51 mark after Justice knocked down another 3-pointer and Bassey dunked the ball on the possession.
The Hilltoppers finished the first half on a 16-3 run when redshirt senior wing Jared Savage drained a 3-pointer and junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth made 1-of-2 free throws to give WKU a 37-22 lead at the half.
WKU shot 48.1% from the field in the first half, as Bassey and Justice both reached double-figures. Justice led the Hilltoppers in the first half with 15 points on a perfect 4 for 4 shooting from distance, while Bassey had 10 points, seven rebounds and went 4-of-4 from the free-throw line.
WKU outrebounded Fordham 21-15 in the first half, and held the Rams to only 32.1% shooting from the field.
Just like the first half, the Rams were the first to score in the second half, as they scored when redshirt junior forward Chuba Ohams made a jumper.
Fordham made three of its first four shots to cut WKU’s lead to 39-28 in the first 2:09 of the half.
After missing four consecutive shots to start the second half, the Hilltoppers scored their first field goal of the half at the 15:48 mark when Savage picked up an offensive rebound and put in a left-handed layup to give WKU a 42-32 lead.
Justice tied his season-high for 3-pointers in a game when he knocked down a three to give the Hilltoppers a 47-32 lead at the 14:26 mark.
The Rams went on a 7-0 run to cut the WKU lead to just 47-39 at the 13:23 mark after Portley knocked down a 3-pointer.
Justice surpassed his season-high of 3-pointers in a game with another 3-pointer at the 12:50 mark, increasing WKU’s lead to 50-39.
Fordham then produced a 6-0 run to only make it a 50-45 game at the 9:45 mark.
Bassey stopped the Rams’ run by converting a three-point play to give WKU a 53-45 lead at the 8:50 mark.
After both teams kept trading buckets for a majority of the second half, the Rams would cut WKU’s lead again to just 64-58 with 3:36 left in the game.
On the next possession, Savage hit his second 3-pointer of the game to increase WKU’s lead to 67-58 with just over three minutes left in the contest.
The Rams hit a pair of 3-pointers to cut WKU’s lead to just 67-64 with just a 1:05 left in the game.
Justice was fouled with 11 seconds remaining, and he made both of his free throws to lift the Hilltoppers to a five-point victory.
The Hilltoppers are now 4-1 all-time against Fordham and have won four straight in the series.
Following the win, WKU will get a few days off before travelling to Nashville for a neutral-site matchup with in-state rival No. 2 Louisville (6-0) this weekend.
“We don’t know much about them yet, except for everything that you read,” Stansbury said. “It’s very obvious they’re going to be one of the best teams in the country and they can really score the basketball. You know, we’ve probably all watched them on TV once or twice in their games.
"I’ve said this, I think they score the ball as well, if not better than anyone in the country and they have all five starters that can score. They have two guys off that bench that can really, really, really play. Again, they’re the number two team in the country for a reason.”
The Hilltoppers and Cardinals haven’t met on the hardwood since 19th-ranked Louisville defeated WKU 78-56 in the KFC Yum! Center on Dec. 19, 2015.
Louisville leads the all-time series 40-39, but WKU’s last win in the heated rivalry was a 68-54 upset over the third-ranked Cardinals in Nashville on Nov. 30, 2008.
Tipoff is set for 4 p.m. on Friday.
The Black Friday game will be streamed live on CBS Sports Network on Facebook, which hosts games produced by CBS and broadcast exclusively on the social media platform.