STILLWATER, Okla. — Western Kentucky, arguably, has now put together one of the greatest seasons in its storied history.
No, it’s not in the NCAA Tournament. Nor is it playing for a national championship. And it didn’t come away with a conference title this year.
But what the Hilltoppers are doing is going for a 28th win this season after cutting a swath of victories through Power 5 opponents en route to New York City next week and the semifinals of the National Invitational Tournament.
“When I came in I saw what we had, we had something special, we had a lot of talent, talented players on the team. We come together we’re gonna be really good,” WKU senior and Kansas transfer Dwight Coleby said Wednesday. “Every time we play high-major teams we just got a chip on our shoulder and we’re just gonna keep coming at their neck.”
Western will be going for win No. 28 on Tuesday when it faces Utah. Only the 2007-08, 2001-02, 1986-87, 1953-54, 1947-48, 1941-42, 1937-38 and 1933-34 teams can lay claim to having reached that plateau.
This year’s squad was an unlikely group from the start to reach such heights. There were eight active players on the roster when the season started Nov. 10. That number rose to 10 at one point then settled at nine for the homestretch.
Those nine players could have folded after a 67-66 loss to Marshall in the Conference USA title game March 10. Instead they waxed Boston College by 17 on March 13, surged past Southern California on Monday, then flew from Los Angeles to Stillwater, Okla., and refused to lose Wednesday in front of more than 11,000 Oklahoma State fans.
“I can’t say enough about these guys, how proud I am for them,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. “These guys on this team believed in a journey that started back last year with one guy coming back: (senior) Justin Johnson. All these other guys were new.”
The Tops also showed the sort of resiliency needed to win in March – and on the road for that matter – in their latest conquest. Oklahoma State tied the game at 60-60 with 1:15 left in the third quarter, got within 71-70 at the 5:55 mark and 74-73 as late at 4:31.
Western never wavered. Behind 30 points from freshman Taveion Hollingsworth and 11 second-half points from senior Darius Thompson, WKU kept its foot on the gas.
“These guys took a lick. And we never wilted,” Stansbury said. “We kept finding ways to get back up off that mat and finish that game. And that’s not easy on the road against a really good team.”
Western Kentucky has been to the NIT in New York nine times – but the last trip came in 1965 in an era when the event was considered more prestigious than today’s NCAA Tournament. The program’s best finish there came in 1942 when it beat the City College of New York and Creighton before losing to West Virginia.
This year’s WKU team will arrive with Utah, Mississippi State and Pennsylvania State as one of the final four teams standing from a 32-team field. The Hilltoppers will be trying to win a fourth game in a single postseason for the first time since the ’70-71 squad went 4-1 in the NCAA Tournament.
“I’ve been a part of New York and the NIT. I’ve been a part of the NCAA Tournament and have to play – have to play on a Sunday and they end up sending you to Washington you end up playing early Thursday, you get beat and go home. Versus playing in the NIT, having an opportunity to play three games, and get to New York City?” Stansbury said. “Now we’re just not going to New York City, we got an opportunity to play for a national championship. How many teams can say they have that opportunity? To play on one of the greatest stage in the country? Madison Square Garden? I’m proud for these guys that haven’t been there. They have that opportunity. It’ll be great.”
The Hilltoppers have never played Utah before and a win over the Utes (22-11) would give WKU a fourth straight victory over a program from a Power 5 conference. Doing that would send the Tops to the NIT title game at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Remarkable stuff for a team that went from unknown to unforgettable.
“The guys wanna win. And not only that they wanna get better, too,” WKU redshirt-junior guard Lamonte Bearden said. “If you got guys that wanna win and get better? You can’t do anything about that but win games.”
• Western Kentucky has now made at least one 3 in 975 straight games.
• The Hilltoppers have now made 612 free throws while its opponents have attempted 381.
• Coleby (64) is now eighth for the most blocks in a WKU season. Ben Lawson is seventh with 66.
• WKU senior Darius Thompson (174) is fifth in WKU history for assists in a single season. James McNary is fourth with 175.
• WKU senior Justin Johnson (1,691) is now 10th on WKU’s all-time scoring list. Anthony Winchester is 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-most at WKU. A.J. Slaughter is third with 135.
• Johnson (520) is eighth for free throws attempted in a WKU career. Haskins is seventh with 546.
• Johnson is fourth in WKU history with 3,746 minutes played. Kannard Johnson is third with 3,801.
• WKU now has a 12-14 all-time record in the NIT.
• The Hilltoppers need 75 points Tuesday become the highest-scoring team in program history.
• The 2017-18 WKU team now ranks third in program history in field goals made, assists and free throws made, fourth in blocked shots and free throws attempted and seventh in steals.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop