Hilltoppers give Memphis scare before falling 74-62
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO) - WKU Hilltopper Basketball took the fight to nationally ranked Memphis on Friday night, before the Tigers ultimately pulled away for a 74-62 win at the FedEx Forum.
The Hilltoppers (1-3) led by as much as 10 in the first half and by two early in the second half, but turnovers and poor free throw shooting allowed 11th-ranked Memphis (4-0) to secure its fourth straight win to open the season.
“I came away from it knowing we’re going to be a pretty good team,” WKU head coach Rick Stansbury said. “I didn’t take any negatives away from it at all. I took all positives. There are no moral victories, but our guys just took one of the better teams in the country, right down battling them. So there’s a lot of positive things I took from it.”
Memphis used a 10-0 run to take a 15-8 lead early, but WKU went on a 21-4 burst. The Hilltoppers’ lead swelled as large as 10 at 29-19 on a basket by senior forward Jairus Hamilton with 7:59 to go.
The Tigers came back with a 7-0 run and pulled in front late at 38-36, but WKU sophomore guard Dayvion McKnight’s mid-range jumper with 37 seconds left tied it at the break.
The Hilltoppers’ last lead came with 18:31 remaining on a basket by McKnight, but Memphis rattled off 12 straight points and never trailed again.
WKU got back within two at 53-51 with 12:50 to go on a 3-pointer by graduate senior guard Camron Justice. Memphis ended the threat with a 9-0 burst and controlled things the rest of the way.
Justice, playing in just his second game since being cleared for another year of eligibility, led WKU with 18 points, including four 3-pointers.
“I think I just had my legs back under me,” Justice said. “I had a full week’s practice. We actually executed some things that we wanted to do and my shot was falling so I just wanted to be some help and that veteran experience. I think they came out early and gave us a little punch there in that second half and (Coach Stansbury) subbed me in quick, and that’s my responsibility to pick us back up and get us scoring.”
Hamilton finished with 14 points, and McKnight tallied 11 points, eight rebounds, five steals and four assists. Senior guard Josh Anderson added seven points and a career-high six steals.
The Hilltoppers forced Memphis into 26 turnovers and recorded 19 steals, their most in a game since 1997.
“I just think that we learned that we’re a bunch of fighters,” Hamilton said. “No matter what type of game, no matter what way it’s going, we’re always going to fight. We’re going to try to do our best, we’re always going to compete no matter who it is. We’ve got a bunch of tough dogs on this team so we’re always going to go and compete.”
WKU committed 25 turnovers itself and made just 5 of 13 free throws.
Jalen Duren powered Memphis to victory with 22 points, 19 rebounds and five blocks.
The Hilltoppers will return to Bowling Green for a five-game homestand, beginning against Alabama A&M at 4 p.m. CT Wednesday in E.A. Diddle Arena. The game will air on ESPN+.
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