BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Western Kentucky was rocked by Alabama Birmingham on Saturday at Bartow Arena, losing 101-73 in the regular-season finale for both teams.
The Hilltoppers (22-9, 14-4 Conference USA) fell to third place after the loss and will play at 9 p.m. Thursday against the winner of UAB and Florida Atlantic. They began the week with a chance to steal the regular-season crown with two wins, but instead will head to Frisco, Texas losers of two straight by an average margin of 23.
On Saturday, WKU showed little life and little energy and trailed for more than 39 minutes. The Blazers (19-12, 10-8 CUSA) led by as many as the final score and willfully scored on nearly every possession.
Six Blazers finished in double figures led by Nate Darling’s 23. Birmingham shot 60.7 percent and had a whopping 26 assists.
Justin Johnson (18) and Lamonte Bearden (17) led WKU offensively, but the Tops turned the ball over 15 times and shot 43.5 percent from the floor.
Final numbers pic.twitter.com/imKHJFGxQp— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) March 4, 2018
The 2018 Conference USA tournament bracket pic.twitter.com/ZmEhl98iDy— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) March 4, 2018
Each team came out blazing from the field, combining for an 11-19 start with seven 3. Johnson and William Lee each had eight points for their respective teams within the first five minutes.
The Blazers went on a 11-0 run to take a commanding 27-15 lead with 11:01 to go in the opening period. Western went 5:08 without a point before Josh Anderson came off the bench to split the defense for a contested layup.
A baseline jumper from Chris Cokley with seven minutes left in the half gave UAB a 37-22 lead. Western finally showed some signs of life with an 9-0 run thanks to a Dwight Coleby dunk, four straight from Taveion Hollingsworth, a Johnson jumper in the lane and a Johnson free throw.
Zack Bryant’s 3 pushed the lead back to 10 at 45-35 before an Anderson runner cut the deficit to eight – and that’s how the half ended with UAB up 45-37. The Blazers shot 57.1 percent and recorded 11 assists on 16 made field goals.
HALFTIME— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) March 4, 2018
Western Kentucky 37 pic.twitter.com/aCw5nWeebH
The Hilltoppers made a small burst early in the second half to get within 47-43, but UAB responded with a 13-0 run to go back up 17 with 15 minutes remaining.
It didn’t get much better for the visitors after that.
Lewis Sullivan’s two-handed slam gave UAB its largest lead at 68-51 with 12 minutes to go. A Nick Norton 3 from the right wing at the 10:16 mark made it a 71-53 contest.
The coup de gras was Bryant’s lob off the backboard for a two-handed Cokley slam making it 80-69. And that was all she wrote.
Lee ended his night with 18, Bryant and Cokley each scored 17 and Norton and Sullivan had 10 each.
• Western Kentucky has now made at least one 3 in 969 straight games.
• The Hilltoppers have not recorded back-to-back wins over the Blazers (18-12, 9-8) since 2005 and 2006 and haven’t swept UAB in the same season for the first time since 1986.
• Under coach Rick Stansbury, WKU is now 11-17 on the road, 6-22 when trailing at halftime, 4-28 when trailing at the 5-minute mark, 34-16 when attempting more free throws than the opponent, 26-7 when out-rebounding the opponent, 13-21 when finishing with fewer assists than the opponent, 30-11 when scoring at least 70 points, 2-3 in March and 14-12 on Saturday.
• The Blazers lead the series with WKU 23-14 and are 16-4 in games played in Birmingham, Ala.
• The Hilltoppers have outscored their opponents 1,224-886 in the paint this season.
• Senior center Dwight Coleby (58) now has the ninth-most blocks in a single WKU season. Jeremy Evans is eighth with 61.
• Thompson has 146 assists, the ninth-most assists in a single WKU season. A.J. Slaughter is eighth with 147.
• Johnson (1,580) is 15th on WKU’s all-time scoring list. A.J. Slaughter is 14th with 1,581 career points and George Fant is 13th with 1,621.
• Johnson is fifth with 988 career rebounds at WKU. Jim McDaniels is fourth with 1,118.
• Hollingsworth (411) needs two points to move past Derrick Gordon (412) for the third-most points in a single WKU season by a freshman.
• Johnson is now seventh in WKU history with 128 games played as a Hilltopper. George Fant is sixth with 129.
• Johnson now has 35 career double-doubles, the fifth-most in a WKU career. Chris Marcus is fourth with 38.
• Johnson (492) is ninth for free throws attempted in a WKU career. McDaniels is eighth with 514.
• Johnson is ninth in WKU history with 3,252 minutes played. Slaughter is eighth with 3,550.
• Attendance on Saturday was announced at 4,363.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop