Hilltoppers bring their own show to NYC in NIT final four

Published: Mar. 26, 2018 at 8:37 AM CDT
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New York is a city where people go to see a show. The Hilltoppers are there this week to put on one of their own.

“I don’t think no other team in this country is like us. For us to play well, we have to joke around,” WKU freshman Taveion Hollingsworth said. “I ain’t even gonna lie, when have ya’ll ever seen everybody on the team serious? I don’t think anybody has ever seen us serious. Either someone has a big smile or somebody’s dancing or somebody’s jumping around. That’s just how we win games. We have fun.”

Western Kentucky (27-10) has been having a lot of fun as of late. Even the oft-stoic seniors Darius Thompson and Dwight Coleby have cracked a smile or two during WKU’s run of victories over Boston College, Southern California and Oklahoma State, respectively.

The Tops are hoping the good times continue at 6 p.m. CDT Tuesday when they face Utah (22-11) in the semifinals of the National Invitational Tournament in New York.

“When guys are serious we ask ‘em what’s wrong with ‘em,” WKU senior Justin Johnson said. “You look at warmups, we look awful. The coaches, they gave up a long time ago on going hard in warmups. That’s just the way the team is, though. You just have to kind of let ‘em be. That’s when they play hard and they’re at their best, when they’re loose like that. If you tighten everything up I don’t think it’s the same basketball team.”

Tuesday’s game will be the latest Western has played into a season since the 2008 team went 2-1 in the NCAA Tournament. The current team had realistic dreams of reaching similar heights, only to see that dream slip away when Lamonte Bearden’s runner went in – then out – in the Conference USA championship loss, 67-66, to Marshall earlier in March.

But now the dream is to take home a trophy from New York. Wins over Utah and then either Mississippi State (25-11) or Pennsylvania State (24-13) on Thursday would give Western Kentucky its most wins since 2008.

“We all wanna get to the NCAA Tournament. No doubt about it,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. “But this run these guys we have had, now the opportunity to go play for a championship on that stage, that’s really, really special. I’m proud they’re getting this opportunity because these guys worked hard and overcome a lot of different obstacles to put themselves in this position.”

The Runnin’ Utes of Utah come to NYC having won 9 of 11 and three straight. Senior guard and Long Beach State transfer Justin Bibbins leads four Utah players scoring in double figures with 14.7 points per game – Bibbins is also an 86.3 percent shooter from the line and has registered 4.7 assists per content.

Senior forward David Collette (12.5 ppg), junior guard and Southern Methodist transfer Sedrick Barefield (11.6 ppg) and senior forward Tyler Rawson (10.8 ppg) are also scoring threats for a Utah team which ranks among the top 6- teams in college basketball in 3-point attempts, assists per game, assist-to-turnover ratio, shooting defense, free-throw shooting and 3-pointers per game.

Collette, who started his career at Utah State, ranks eighth nationally with a field goal percentage of 64.

“When you start watching film on them – I cut it off (after) about 50 sets," Stansbury said of the Utes. "You can not prepare for all (their) sets. He does an unbelievable job offensively, defensively. (Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak has) got a veteran basketball team. We know we got our hands full there."

A win over Utah would give Western a second victory over a team from the Pacific 12 Conference. It can also claim wins over Atlantic Coast Conference, American Athletic Conference, Big XII Conference and Big Ten Conference programs.

Beating the Utes would also make WKU 14-7 in games played away from Bowling Green this season, with nine wins so far coming on the road and four on a neutral court.

“That shows everybody we ain’t scared," Hollingsworth said. "We don’t care who we play, we’re gonna play like we play – and that’s what I like about us.”

Western Kentucky, as surprising as this may read, has never won a postseason championship. It came close in the NIT in 1942 (second), 1948 (third) and 1954 (fourth). In 1971 the Hilltoppers made it to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament where they lost to Villanova and beat Kansas in the tournament’s consolation game.

Stansbury said this week he took some advice about the NIT from Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Walton – and will use that mantra to motivate his team.

“You always remember more when you win. That’s just where it is. You wanna be remembered? Go win a championship,” Stansbury said. “(Walton’s) a guy that can relate to that. You wanna stay together for the rest of your life? As a group? Go win a championship together. Think about that now. A lot of truth to that.

“We wanna be remembered. I want this group of guys to stay together for a lifetime. The best way to do it is to go win a championship.”


• Western Kentucky has made at least one 3 in 975 straight games.

• The Hilltoppers have made 612 free throws while its opponents have attempted 377.

• WKU has outscored its opponents 1,450-1063 from inside the lane this season.

• Coleby (64) has the eighth for the most blocks in a WKU season. Ben Lawson is seventh with 66 in 2015-16 and Jeremy Evans is sixth with 68 in 2008-09.

• Thompson (174) is fifth in WKU history for assists in a single season. James McNary is fourth with 175 in 1985-86 and Gene Rhodes is third with 182 in 1951-52.

•Johnson (1,691) is 10th on WKU’s all-time scoring list and needs 42 points to pass Anthony Winchester for ninth with 1,732 career points.

• Johnson is fifth with 1,046 career rebounds at WKU. Jim McDaniels is fourth with 1,118.

• Johnson has now played 134 career games, tied with Jeremy Evans for fourth at WKU. A.J. Slaughter is third with 135, Steffphon Pettigrew is second with 136 and Lynn Cole is first with 141.

• Johnson (520) is eighth for free throws attempted in a WKU career. Clem Haskins is seventh with 546.

• Johnson is fourth in WKU history with 3,746 minutes played. Kannard Johnson is third with 3,801.

• Johnson has 39 career double-doubles, the fourth-most in a WKU career. Dwight Smith is third with 40.

• WKU now has a 12-14 all-time record in the NIT.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop
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