The WKU men’s basketball team (15-8, 8-3 C-USA) hosted a key game in the Conference USA standings on Thursday night, and the Hilltoppers used a stellar defensive effort to lead for 39:25 of clock time in a 65-54 home win against Louisiana Tech (17-6, 8-3 C-USA) in Diddle Arena.
WKU entered the game on a two-game losing streak after a strenuous road skid in Florida, but the Hilltoppers used the 5,769 fans in attendance to rebound in a big way.
The Hilltoppers’ blackout game, which was also nationally televised on CBS Sports Network, saw WKU don black uniforms at home for the first time since the 2014-15 campaign.
Head coach Rick Stansbury, who’s now 5-2 in his career against the Bulldogs, said his team slowed the game down and worked the clock after holding a 20-point lead at halftime.
“I thought it was about as good as it could be,” Stansbury said about his team's defense. “You know, they’re averaging 75 points and we give up 54, only 24 in the first half. I kind of grounded that game in the second half. It ain’t about trying to win by 40, it’s about getting that horn to go off in your head.”
WKU is still one game out of first place in the league standings, but the program has worked its way back to a tie for second place with LA Tech as C-USA Bonus Play approaches.
The Hilltoppers shot 44% while making 6-of-19 shots from distance and converting 19-of-23 free throws from the charity stripe. WKU forced the Bulldogs into 15 turnovers, leading to the Hilltoppers to scoring 17 points off LA Tech miscues.
WKU had three players reach double-digit scoring outputs, and freshman guard Jordan Rawls led the way for the Hilltoppers by setting a career-high with 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting.
“It was very satisfying,” Rawls said. “We just wanted to bounce back, and a lot of that had to do with the fans in Diddle. We appreciate them coming out and giving us energy today at home.”
Redshirt junior Carson Williams added 14 points, eight rebounds and two blocks, while graduate guard Camron Justice reached double figures with 11 points. He finished the game with a pair of 3-pointers and a 5 for 5 performance from the free-throw line in 21:16 of playing time.
The Bulldogs had won four straight in conference play, and they also entered the game as the No. 1 scoring defense in C-USA, holding 13 opponents this season to 60 points or less.
After giving up 44 points in the first half, the Bulldogs outscored the Hilltoppers 30-21 in the second half and only allowed WKU to convert six field goals in the entire second period. The Bulldogs won the battle in the paint by outscoring WKU 34-24 inside the painted area.
LA Tech failed to have a scorer reach double figures, but senior guard DaQuan Bracey led the Bulldogs with nine points and six rebounds. Junior guard Amorie Archibald and redshirt senior guard Derric Jean each added eight points for LA Tech, respectively.
Williams won the opening tip for the Hilltoppers, and he was rewarded with the first points of the evening when junior guard Josh Anderson broke down the defense and found the Owenton native for an easy one-handed shot.
The Hilltoppers turned the Bulldogs over on their first two possessions, building an early 6-0 advantage in the first 1:36 of clock time.
LA Tech scored its first points when Jean missed back-to-back shots inside the paint before netting his third put-back attempt, cutting the Hilltopper lead to 6-2 at the 17:11 mark.
After starting the game 3 for 3, the Hilltoppers missed their next four shots until Anderson scored his first points of the night to give the Hilltoppers an 8-4 lead at the 15:58 mark.
The Bulldogs grabbed their fourth offensive rebound just under 5:30 into the game, leading to another put-back shot that trimmed their deficit to 10-9.
The Hilltoppers reached the free-throw line for the first time of the contest when Williams got fouled on his way to the basket at the 13:39 mark. Williams converted both of his free throws, boosting the WKU lead to 12-9.
Justice was the first man off the bench for the Hilltoppers at the 14:15 mark, and he scored WKU’s first bench points since a 91-84 win against Marshall on Jan. 25. The 6-foot-3-inch guard swished three free throws to give WKU a 15-9 lead.
WKU went 4:38 of clock time without a made field goal, but the Hilltoppers continued getting to the line. Redshirt senior wing Savage converted a free throw, expanding the WKU lead to 15-11 at the 10:53 mark.
The Hilltoppers started the contest by missing their first three shots from distance, but Justice hit WKU’s first 3-pointer at the 10:27 mark and increased the Hilltopper lead to 19-11.
LA Tech continued to attack the glass in the first half, as the Bulldogs picked up another offensive rebound. It led to an easy two points and sliced the WKU lead to 23-16.
WKU stretched its lead to double figures for the first time when Rawls drained a triple from the right side of the court, giving the Hilltoppers a 28-16 advantage at the 6:16 mark.
Rawls swished his second straight 3-pointer on WKU’s next possession, giving him 10 points in the first half and the Hilltoppers a commanding 31-18 lead.
The Bulldogs scored after Rawls’ made 3-pointer, but Justice then drilled his second 3-pointer of the night to increase the Hilltopper lead to 34-20 at the 4:27 mark.
The Hilltoppers ended the first half of play by making seven straight shots from the floor, taking a 44-24 advantage into the halftime intermission.
WKU controlled the pace of the game in the first half by using its full-court press, forcing the Bulldogs into nine first-half turnovers. The press opened up more scoring opportunities in the opening 20 minutes of action and allowed the Hilltoppers to play more aggressively.
WKU shot 63.6% from the field in the first period of the game, making 4-of-8 shots from the three-point line and shooting 12-of-13 from the free-throw line.
Rawls led the Hilltoppers with 14 points in the first half while making six of his seven shots from the floor. Williams was the only other Hilltopper to reach double figures in the first half, as he finished with 10 points and five rebounds.
The Hilltoppers controlled the bench points category in the first half, as Justice scored all nine WKU bench points to outscore the Bulldog bench, 9-2.
The Bulldogs had six different players score in the first half, but Bracey paced LA Tech with seven points and an assist in his 18:22 of playing time.
LA Tech scored the first points of the second half, as Jean drained a 3-pointer in the corner at the 18:54 mark. Savage matched Jean’s 3-pointer with one of his own just 24 seconds later, increasing the Hilltopper lead back to 20 points.
The Hilltoppers continued their aggressive approach to the game, as Williams made his way to the free-throw line at the 17:15 mark and swished both foul shots to give WKU a 49-27 lead.
The Bulldogs went on an 8-0 run after Archibald drained back-to-back triples and senior forward Mubarak Muhammed scored a layup at the 15:38 mark, cutting the WKU lead to 49-33.
Junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth answered by dishing out his third assist of the game and finding Savage soaring in the air for a ferocious alley-oop slam. His dunk ended the Bulldog scoring run at the 14:08 mark.
LA Tech came out of intermission by making 6-of-11 shots at the 12:32 mark, consistently chipping away at the WKU lead until it was just a 12-point advantage, 51-39.
Rawls scored his first basket of the second half at the 12:15 mark, but the Bulldogs scored just 14 seconds later to cut their deficit back to 12 points.
The Bulldogs kept narrowing the WKU lead, and LA Tech only trailed by 10 points at the 11:10 mark. Hollingsworth increased the Hilltopper lead to 55-43 after netting a pair of free throws at the 10:14 mark.
The made free throws by Hollingsworth allowed the Hilltoppers to set up in their offensive press, which slowed the Bulldogs down and caused them to go empty on their ensuing possession.
The Hilltoppers missed on six straight shots from the field — going 5:48 of clock time without a basket — but WKU also held the Bulldogs to a scoring drought that lasted 4:27.
While WKU struggled to score from the floor for extended stretches during the second half, the Hilltoppers found their way to the free-throw line. Anderson converted 1-of-2 free throws at the 8:21 mark, increasing the WKU lead to 56-43 .
Hollingsworth scored his first field goal of the game after missing six straight shots from the floor, and Williams added to his stat line to push the WKU lead to 60-45 with 5:37 left.
Williams made his way back to the free-throw line at the 3:11 mark, but the redshirt junior missed his first foul shots of the night.
Justice became the third WKU player to reach double figures against the Bulldogs, as he converted a pair of free throws with 2:39 left in the contest. His made foul shots gave him 11 points in the game and the Hilltoppers a 62-45 lead at that point.
Rawls stretched the Hilltopper lead to 65-47 after draining his third 3-pointer of the night at the 1:16 mark. Rawls’ final shot helped him set a new career-high with 19 points.
LA Tech scored seven straight points to end the ball game, but the Hilltoppers handed the Bulldogs their third loss in conference play by an 11-point margin.
Following the win, the Hilltoppers will remain at home and host Southern Mississippi (7-17, 3-8 C-USA) on Saturday night.
The Golden Eagles are led by the high-scoring trio of sophomore guard Gabe Watson, sophomore forward Tyler Stevenson and junior guard LaDavius Draine.
Tipoff in Diddle Arena is set for 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 8.
Stadium will broadcast the game exclusively on Facebook.