NORFOLK, Va. — If there was any remaining doubt Western Kentucky would be a serious contender in Conference USA’s regular-season title race, that doubt should now be completely washed away.
The Hilltoppers rallied from a sluggish first half and controlled the final 20 minutes Thursday at the Constant Center to beat Old Dominion 75-68. Western moved to 4-0 in league play and beat the Monarchs for the first time in seven tries.
Justin Johnson had a monster game with 25 points and 14 rebounds. Darius Thompson scored 24, Lamonte Bearden added 15 and Dwight Coleby collected nine boards to go with eight points.
Western Kentucky (12-5) heads to Charlotte (5-10, 1-3 CUSA) at 6 p.m. CST Saturday.
After building a 68-57 lead with 4 1/2 minutes to go, ODU put together a quick 5-0 spurt to get with 68-62 after a B.J. Stith pull-up 3 from the left side.
WKU coach Rick Stansbury called timeout with 1:41 to go, but the Tops turned it over out of the stoppage. They got a reprieve – the Monarchs missed a shot on the other end, Johnson grabbed the rebound and Western salted the game away from there.
The Hilltoppers also won at ODU for the first time since 1991.
After trailing 2-0 for 50 seconds, WKU took a 5-2 lead on a Johnson 3 and then an 8-4 lead on another Johnson 3. Thompson joined the fun with a triple from the left wing putting WKU up by seven at 11-4.
Johnson’s third 3 in the first 6:09 put Western on top 16-6.
Old Dominion started to chip away and got within 17-14 and 19-16 on a Trey Porter dunk and B.J. Stith, respectively. B.J. Stith drained a 3 from the left wing – and let the WKU bench know about it – at 23-21, Randy Haynes tied it with a jumper just inside the arc from the left side to tie the game and Brandan Stith’s tip in finally put the Monarchs back in front at 25-23.
Western went through a scoring drought of 5:31 before a Johnson jumper with 1:27 remaining in the half. That got the Hilltoppers out of their funk and a Thompson dunk off an ODU turnover followed by Thompson’s running 3 from the left side that beat the buzzer making it 32-30 at the break.
The Hilltoppers shot 46.2 percent but turned the ball over eight times. The Monarchs made all six of their free throws and outscored WKU in the paint 18-10.
Darius Thompson beats the buzzer pic.twitter.com/tGCbm5bPaF— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) January 12, 2018
HALFTIME— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) January 12, 2018
Old Dominion 32
Western Kentucky 30 pic.twitter.com/3Uq3A676ka
Western quickly took the lead back at the start of the second thanks to yet another Johnson 3 making it 33-32. Thompson hit another moments later to give WKU a 40-34 edge.
Leading 44-41, Johnson knocked down his fifth 3 of the game. That was followed by Bearden coming off a screen on the left side and splashing a 3 of his own to put the Tops up 50-41 with 12:22 to play.
A reverse layup from Thompson coming out a timeout with less than nine minutes to go allowed the Hilltoppers to enjoy a 10-point lead at 56-46. Bearden’s three-point play a little more than a minute late made it a 59-50 game and set up the final, crucial minutes.
B.J. Stith led ODU with 17 while Porter added 14. Ahmad Caver finished 4 of 15 from the floor.
• Johnson passed Craig McCormick (1,354) and Charlie Osborne (1,359) to move into 17th on WKU’s all-time scoring list. Art Spoelstra is 16th with 1,510.
• Johnson needs six rebounds to move pass Dwight Smith (856, 10th) for career rebounds in WKU history.
• Hollingsworth needs four points to pass Jeremy Evans (224) for the 13th-most points scored during a single freshman season in WKU history.
• Hollingsworth had a streak of scoring at least 12 points in 10 straight games end.
• WKU has trailed for a total of 6:43 in four conference games.
• Western Kentucky has made at least one 3 in 955 straight games.
• ODU now leads the series with WKU 18-17.
• Under coach Rick Stansbury, WKU is now 7-14 in road games, 4-18 when trailing at halftime, 24-0 when leading at the 5-minute mark, 3-10 when attempting fewer free throws than the opponent, 7-15 when getting out-rebounded, 20-10 when scoring 70 points or more, 21-5 when allowing 69 points or less, 6-4 on Thursday and 6-4 in January.
• Attendance was announced at 6,895.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop