Tops go for 2-0 Conference USA start after surviving late Louisiana Tech rally

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Western Kentucky did a lot to try to give a game away Thursday against Louisiana Tech.

The Hilltoppers (9-5, 1-0 Conference USA) led 55-44 with 9 1/2 minutes to go and seemingly had things in control – especially after LTU freshman Anthony Duruji was hit with a technical foul much to the delight of the home crowd.

But Tech went on an 8-0 run in a flash to get within 55-52 and kept coming over the next six minutes. Even after WKU pulled ahead 67-62, freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth took an ill-advised, pull-up jumper on a fastbreak with 1:44 left – and missed. The Bulldogs scored six straight to take their first lead since being up 2-0 30 seconds into the night.

“It was a very good learning experience,” Hollingsworth said. “We had some times, some possessions where we stumbled. We came back on defense, that’s all were worried about is defense, so we got stops. They’d go on runs, we’d go on runs, the game keeps going. We just gotta be prepared.”

Redshirt-junior guard Lamonte Bearden took matters into his own hands with 12 seconds left, driving the land and drawing a foul to receive two free throws. He missed both – but WKU’s efforts on the offensive boards tipped the ball back to Bearden who was fouled again.

This time the Buffalo transfer made both shots to provide the final score of 69-68.

“You wanna win ‘em all, close, not close, bottom line is ‘W’ or ‘L,’ ” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. “Would we rather had a 10-point win? That’d be easier, everybody would been more relaxed, but at the end of the day it’s a ‘W.’

“As a team, as a coach, you gotta find find ways to win games somehow and we found a way to win a game against a very good Louisiana Tech team. Put it behind us, get ready for the next one.”

Western improved to 9-2 in its last 11 conference openers and will try to start the year 2-0 in CUSA when Southern Mississippi shows up at E.A. Diddle Arena at 2 p.m. Saturday. The Tops are also now 6-2 at home this year and 17-5 in Bowling Green under Stansbury.

They’ll need that extra boost from the home crowd because, as the second-year WKU coach sees it, fatigue could continue to become an issue for Stansbury’s short roster against fresher, deeper teams even though he want use that factor as a crutch.

“Hey, I’m just trying to get it to the finish line,” he said. “For the most part, here’s what I feel, I feel like these guys are working hard. Their trying. I can’t talk about fatigue. I can’t talk about it. I’m not gonna talk about it to ‘em. It’s such a small margin of error for us. I wish I could sit here and say we’ll come down the stretch and have nice, relaxing leads. But that’s not who we are. This league at the top is good. Louisiana Tech was picked second or third in the league. They’re a good team.

“Everybody knows what we’re fighting, what we’re fighting with. For our guys to fight and come out of their with the ‘W’ with what we’re fighting with? Hey, yes we could play better, but I couldn’t ask for anything more than they’re giving us, effort-wise, toughness-wise.”

Southern Miss (7-7, 0-1 CUSA) has dropped three straight, including Thursday’s 85-66 loss at Marshall to begin league play. Three of the Golden Eagles’ seven wins have come against non-Division I programs.

Junior guard Cortez Edwards is scoring 17 points per contest to go along with 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists per night. Redshirt-junior guard Tyree Griffin is adding 14.2 ppg and 5.8 apg while redshirt-junior guard Dominic Magee chips in 11.2 points per contest.

The Golden Eagles have been held to 72. points per game and are the league’s worst offensive rebounding team.

Western will be trying to become the first WKU team since 2012-13 to win 10 games before January.

OHMER HURTS ANKLE

Western Kentucky freshman Jake Ohmer left Thursday’s game against Louisiana Tech with a left ankle injury.

“Sprained his ankle. That’s all I know,” Stansbury said. “Don’t know how bad it is. I just know when he went out he couldn’t come back in.”

Ohmer missed last Friday’s game at Austin Peay after suffering a concussion in the second half against Belmont on Dec. 19. He took one shot Thursday and is now 6-for-24 shooting in his last three games.

The freshman from Taylor Mill is scoring 9.8 points per game and shooting 35.1 percent from 3.

NOTES

• Saturday’s matchup between WKU and USM will be the ninth in a series dating back to 1958. The Hilltoppers have won seven of the previous eight matchups, losing 67-64 in overtime in 2012 in Hattiesburg, Miss.

• Western Kentucky has made at least one 3 in 952 straight games.

• WKU senior forward Justin Johnson (1,293 career points) needs 13 points to pass Tony Wilson (22nd) on WKU’s all-time scoring list.

• Johnson needs 41 rebounds to move into the top 10 on WKU’s all-time career rebounding list. Dwight Smith is 10th with 856.

• Hollingsworth is six points away from moving past Caden Dickerson (15th; 199) and A.J. Slaughter (14th; 200) for points in a season by a WKU freshman.

• Western now has an RPI of 62 after Thursday’s win, a KenPom rating of 84 and a Sagarin ranking of 87.

• The Hilltoppers now rank 12th nationally with 15.1 fouls per game, 25th with 113 steals, 36th in field goal percentage (49.2), 41st in turnover margin (3.6), 46th with 8.1 steals per game, 62nd in turnovers forced (15.9), 74th in 3-point shooting (38 percent), 80th with 12.4 turnovers per game and 84th with 212 total fouls.

• WKU also ranks 327th with 208 3s attempted, 319th with 5.6 3s per game, 296th with 79 3s made, 266th with 24.2 defensive rebounds per game and 249th in free throw percentage (68.2).

• Johnson ranks 46th nationally with 118 rebounds, 67th with four double-doubles and 78th with 6.1 defensive rebounds per game.

• WKU senior guard Darius Thompson ranks 10th in the nation with 514 minutes played, 23rd with 36:42 minutes played per game, 45th with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.7, 66th with 65 assists, 68th with 25 steals and 92nd with 4.6 assists per game.

• WKU senior center Dwight Coleby ranks 38th nationally with five double-doubles, 40th with 28 blocks, 48th with two blocks per game and 72nd with 2.9 offensive rebounds per game.

• Bearden is 34th nationally with 28 steals, 47th with two steals per game and 90th with 56 free throws made.

• Western Kentucky ranks fifth in Conference USA in attendance by averaging 4,578 fans per game. Middle Tennessee, Texas El Paso, Old Dominion and Marshall are the top four, respectively.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop