The WKU men’s basketball team (9-6, 2-1 C-USA) played away from home for the first time in Conference USA play on Thursday night, and the Hilltoppers stumbled in a 72-62 road loss against Alabama-Birmingham (10-6, 1-2 C-USA) in Bartow Arena in Birmingham, Alabama.
WKU had a five-point lead with 12:57 left to play in the opening half, but never led again after letting a 13-12 advantage with 11:39 remaining in the first half slip away.
The Hilltoppers battled back to trail only 60-57 with 3:44 left in the contest, but UAB produced a 9-0 scoring run to put WKU’s comeback attempt to rest for good.
WKU was trying to start 3-0 in C-USA play for the third time in four seasons under head coach Rick Stansbury, but the Hilltoppers instead fell to 4-16 all-time when playing on the road against UAB and dug themselves deeper into a 16-25 deficit in the all-time series.
Stansbury, who entered the game with a 6-3 career mark against the Blazers, said there’s not a lot of room for error when playing on the road in a hostile environment.
“We’ve just got to keep battling,” Stansbury said postgame. “One thing I’ll say for our kids, our kids battled. They battled to keep themselves in position to have an opportunity to win a game late. You know, the effort is there. Again, we’ve got to continue to get better at battling. You can’t have a couple of broken possessions.”
WKU broke out a new uniform combination against the Blazers, donning solid black Nike jerseys and shorts for the first time in Stansbury’s four years at the helm. The new kit, which was unveiled on Twitter four hours before tipoff, had its in-game debut ruined with a tough loss to UAB.
⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️ BACK IN BLACK ⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️ pic.twitter.com/UkShSqmOkJ— WKU Hilltopper Basketball (@WKUBasketball) January 9, 2020
The Hilltoppers struggled in the first half, shooting 26.5%, but WKU shot much better in the second half at 48.3%. WKU ended with only eight turnovers on the night, marking the fourth straight contest in which the Hilltoppers committed 10 or fewer turnovers in a game.
For the first time in four games, WKU used a different starting lineup — freshman guard Jordan Rawls received his first start of the season in place of injured graduate guard Camron Justice.
Justice was limited to eight minutes of playing time against the Blazers due to a back injury the IUPUI transfer suffered while lifting weights earlier this week.
Junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth stepped up in a big way for WKU, scoring 15 of his game-high 19 points in the second half alone.
Redshirt junior forward Carson Williams added 12 points and eight rebounds, while redshirt senior wing Jared Savage tallied 11 points and a game-high nine rebounds.
Rawls played all 40 minutes for the Hilltoppers, and the first-time starter scored 10 points to match the scoring output posted by junior guard Josh Anderson.
Senior forward Matt Horton, redshirt freshman guard Jeremiah Gambrell and Justice combined for just 16 minutes played, as the WKU bench failed to contribute a single point.
UAB scored its most points in conference play by shooting 50.9% from the floor. The Blazers used their size to attack the glass and outrebound WKU 41-29. UAB also scored 42 points in the paint compared to only 16 points in the paint from an undersized Hilltopper lineup.
“We’ve got no margin of error around that rim,” Stansbury said. “We had a hard time scoring — I shouldn’t say hard time, but we couldn’t score on the block tonight.”
The Blazers had four different players reach double-digit scoring outputs, and four distinct UAB players also grabbed at least five rebounds during the contest.
Freshman guard Jalen Benjamin and sophomore guard Tavin Lovan both scored a team-high 16 points, while junior forward Makhtar Gueye and junior forward Kassim Nicholson each contributed 11 points to a balanced UAB scoring attack.
UAB won the opening tip, but the Blazers missed on their first possession. UAB was able to convert a 3-pointer on its second shot of the night, jumping out to an early 3-0 lead just 44 seconds into the contest.
WKU missed its first seven shots from the floor until Savage knocked down a 3-pointer to even the score at the 17:14 mark, 3-3.
The Blazers answered Savage’s bucket by scoring on its next possession, as junior guard Tyreek Scott-Grayson swished a jumper in the paint.
Savage drained yet another 3-pointer, giving the Hilltoppers a 7-6 lead at the 16:03 mark.
UAB regained the lead at 8-7, but Savage drained his third 3-pointer in a row to give the Hilltoppers a 10-8 lead at 14:36 mark.
Other than Rawls making a free throw earlier in the game, Savage was the only Hilltopper player to convert from the field in the opening seven minutes of action.
Williams knocked down WKU’s fourth 3-pointer of the contest at the 12:57 mark, giving the Hilltoppers a 13-8 advantage. To that point in the contest, all four of the Hilltoppers’ made field goals had come from beyond the arc.
UAB produced a quick 6-0 run to regain a 14-13 lead when senior guard Antonio Ralat swished a jumper in the paint at the 11:35 mark.
Hollingsworth ended the Blazer 8-0 run at the 10:11 mark, as he netted a jumper just inside the paint. The Hilltoppers trailed UAB 16-15 after Hollingsworth’s made basket.
At the 7:26 mark, WKU had shot just 1 for 11 on two-point shots and trailed the Blazers 20-15.
Justice checked in the first time of the night at the 6:20 mark in the first half, temporarily taking Hollingsworth’s spot on the floor.
Anderson scored a pair of two-point baskets to cut the Blazer to 22-19 at the 5:31 mark, and the Hilltoppers were able to trim the Blazer lead to 22-21 after Williams converted both of his free throws.
Senior forward Will Butler scored a layup on the other end to give UAB a 24-21 lead at the 4:23 mark. Rawls kept WKU in it with back-to-back jumpers, and Justice had a chance to give WKU its lead back at the 2:31 mark, but his 3-pointer didn’t connect.
Benjamin converted his first 3-pointer of the first half, giving UAB a 29-25 lead with just 1:32 remaining in the half.
The Blazers scored again on their next possession, and the made shot by freshman guard Jordan Brinson gave UAB its largest lead of the first half with 44 seconds left, 31-25.
UAB held the Hilltoppers scoreless for the last 2:52 of clock time in the opening half, which helped the Blazers mount a six-point lead over WKU at the halftime break.
WKU struggled mightily to score the ball in the first half, as UAB was able to mount a 12-2 scoring run midway through the frame and forced WKU to shoot just 26% from the field.
After starting the first half by making 4-of-8 shots from behind the arc, WKU missed nine consecutive shots from distance to close the half with a lowly 24% overall mark.
The Hilltoppers made only five buckets inside the arc, which resulted in WKU shooting a lowly 26.5% from the floor in the first half.
The Blazers shot an impressive 48.3% from the floor in the first half. UAB had nine different players see action in the first half, and each of those Blazers made at least one field goal.
Horton and Gambrell came off the bench along with Justice, but only WKU’s starting five logged points in the first half. The trend continued into the second half, as the WKU bench didn’t score.
Savage’s trio of 3-pointers gave him nine points to lead WKU in the opening half. Rawls and Williams both followed Savage with five points each.
The Blazers scored the first points of the second half on a fast break dunk from Lovan, giving UAB a 33-25 lead over WKU after 30 seconds has elapsed in the second half.
Williams scored WKU’s first basket of the second half on a 10-foot jumper with 18:31 to play, but Benjamin knocked down his second 3-pointer of the night and expanded the Blazer lead to 36-27 at the 18:06 mark.
The freshman guard scored again on UAB’s next possession, and Williams gave the Blazers a double-digit lead for the first time of the game with a 38-27 advantage at the 17:03 mark.
The Blazers continued to pour it on the Hilltoppers early in the second half, as UAB produced an early 7-0 scoring run until Williams swished his second 3-pointer on the night to cut the Blazer lead to 40-30 at the 16:07 mark.
On WKU’s next possession, Rawls faked a 3-pointer and scored a runner to give WKU a small 5-0 run that trimmed the UAB lead to just 40-32 at the 15:28 mark.
Benjamin reached double-figure points at the 14:13 mark, as he hit a jumper over Hollingsworth to give the Blazers a 42-32 lead.
Rawls also reached double figures after he drained his first triple of the night, cutting the Blazer lead to just 42-35 at the 12:24 mark.
The Hilltoppers started to get comfortable from the floor, as Anderson drained only his seventh 3-pointer on the year at the 11:47 mark.
Just 43 seconds later, Anderson hit another 3-pointer, giving him back-to-back makes from behind the line after the Blazer defense left him wide open on consecutive possessions.
Hollingsworth netted a layup in the painted area and trimmed the Blazer advantage to just 48-45 at the 10:28 mark, but the junior was called for a technical foul after arguing with an official.
Benjamin made both of the ensuing foul shots, putting UAB ahead 50-45 at the 10:25 mark.
The Blazers outscored the Hilltoppers 20-8 in the first half, and UAB controlled the paint just as much in the second half. Nicholson scored yet another layup to give his team a 52-45 lead at the 9:57 mark.
Williams scored his 12th point of the night after UAB committed a goaltending violation on an errant jumper at the 8:44 mark, but the Blazers scored on their next drive to push the UAB lead back out to a seven-point advantage at 54-47.
WKU reached the free-throw line for the first time in the second half at the 6:59 mark, and Savage converted both of his shots from the charity stripe to cut the Blazer lead to 54-49.
UAB turned the ball over for the 12th time of the game at the 6:22 mark when Nicholson was called for an offensive foul. Hollingsworth scored on WKU’s ensuing possession, moving the Hilltoppers to just a 56-51 deficit at the 6:05 mark.
Hollingsworth would score again on a pair of free throws just 26 seconds later, and the Lexington native would eventually help cut the Blazer lead to 56-55 by finding a trailing Anderson for a fastbreak dunk in the paint with 5:26 left to play.
WKU couldn’t capitalize, as Rawls picked up a technical foul and sent Benjamin back to the free-throw line, where he netted both attempts. Lovan converted both of his foul shots, and the four made free throws gave UAB a 60-55 lead with 5:05 remaining in the contest.
Hollingsworth scored again on a five-foot jumper to cut the Blazer lead to 60-57 at the 3:44 mark, but Butler increased the UAB lead to five by finishing a hook-shot at the 3:05 mark.
WKU failed to score on its next two possessions, and the Blazers quickly produced a 6-0 run to jump out to a 66-57 advantage with 2:01 left in the game.
The Hilltoppers went almost three minutes without a basket after Rawls’ technical foul, which allowed the Blazers to the end contest on a 12-5 scoring run.
The Blazers were dominant in the closing minutes of the contest, and UAB was able to hold on for a solid 10-point home win over the Hilltoppers.
Following the loss, the Hilltoppers will travel to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, before continuing C-USA play against Middle Tennessee State (4-12, 0-3 C-USA) on Saturday.
The Blue Raiders have struggled in league action so far, including a 79-75 home loss against Marshall (8-8, 2-1 C-USA) on Thursday night.
Tipoff is set for 5 p.m. on Jan. 11. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.