Hilltoppers execute down the stretch, beat SEC foe Arkansas inside Diddle
Make it eight wins for Western Kentucky over teams from Power Five conferences since the start of the 2017-18 season.
The Hilltoppers, hosting Southeastern Conference foe Arkansas on Saturday night at E.A. Diddle Arena, executed down the stretch and made the plays that mattered most and recorded a hard-fought 86-79 overtime win over the Razorbacks in front of an energetic crowd of 6,862.
WKU’s victory over Arkansas snapped a two-game skid and improved the Toppers to 8-4 against Power Five competition since 17-18.
“It was crackin’, WKU junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth said of the atmosphere. “It was super loud. You really couldn’t hear yourself think. They were really a big part of how we came back in that game. Hearing that, and them showing a lot of love for us even though we’ve been through a couple games where we should’ve won, for them to all come out and support us tonight – it meant a lot.”
The Toppers (7-3) trailed 73-68 with 36 seconds left in regulation but battled back to get within 73-70 with 32 seconds remaining. Trailing by three with possession under its own goal out of a timeout, redshirt senior guard/forward Jared Savage stepped up and knocked down a 3-pointer from the right corner to even the scoreboard at 73-all and send the game into overtime.
“Shout out to coach (Rick Stansbury) and all my teammates for trusting in me,” Savage said. “They drew up a play for me and I just … shot it. That’s what I work for all the time. In the gym all the time shooting shots like that. Everybody wants to hit the game winner, or the game-tier, so it was nice.”
WKU held a tight 80-78 lead with 1:35 remaining in the extra period but went on to outscore Arkansas (8-1) 13-6 in the five-minute frame to come away with the win.
Arkansas started fast and jumped out to a 6-2 lead, but WKU regrouped and used a 9-0 run to jump in front 11-6 at the 14:47 mark of the first half. Josh Anderson made a pair of free throws to put the Hilltoppers up 20-14, but the Razorbacks answered with a 3-pointer from Isaiah Joe to get within 20-17 at the 7:55 mark.
Another 3 by Joe cut Western’s deficit to 25-24 with 5:20 left in the half, but Savage knocked down a deep triple of his own from the right wing, was fouled and made the free throw to send the Toppers into the break holding a 33-28 advantage.
Anderson and graduate senior guard Camron Justice were leading WKU with 7 points each after 20 minutes of action, while sophomore center Charles Bassey had 6 points and 4 rebounds and Hollingsworth had 5 points.
Hollingsworth finished with a game-high 23 points, while Anderson scored 15, Savage recorded 14, Justice had 12, and Bassey tallied 10.
“When I got into the game, it was just playing my role,” Anderson said. “Come in, bring energy to the team, try to play good defense. I feel like I got to the boards a lot better than I’ve been doing. Just play hard – that’s me. That’s what I do.”
Desi Sills carried Arkansas with 20 points, while Joe scored 18 and Jimmy Witt, Jr. added 17.
Whitt Jr.’s layup – followed by a fast-break basket from Jalen Harris – gave the Razorbacks a 39-37 lead at the 16:40 mark of the second. Arkansas pushed its run to 12-2 in a 2:12 span to go up 44-39 and forced Stansbury to call a timeout and talk things over.
Savage splashed a 3 from the left wing off a no-look, behind-the-back bounce pass from Justice to tie it at 44-44, but Harris followed up on the other end with a converted and-one to put the Razorbacks back in front 47-44.
Redshirt junior forward Carson Williams’ tough score inside at the 9:31 mark gave WKU a 51-50 lead – but just before Joe fired back with a 3 and Sills knocked down a pair of free throws to make it 55-51 in Arkansas’ favor. The Hilltoppers answered with four straight to even things, and Hollingsworth soon scored three straight to tie it at 58-all with less than six minutes remaining.
A jumper by Bassey gave WKU a 62-60 lead with 3:50 left, but Joe and Sills made back-to-back 3s to put Arkansas up 68-63 with 1:39 to go – and Sills followed up with another basket to make it a seven-point contest. Despite being down, and losing Bassey to an apparent left knee injury, the Toppers roared back and ultimately used a Savage triple to even the board at 73-all and send the game into overtime.
“I’m awful proud of our guys,” Stansbury said. “I thought we showed a lot of grit. I thought we showed a lot of toughness. We were down late in that game after we lost Charles. You could very easily let some emotion leave your body, but we didn’t do it. I thought our guys took their emotion to another level and found ways to go make plays.”
Anderson’s bucket at the 3:28 mark of the extra period put WKU up 77-75, and it was soon up 80-77 after a fast-break layup by Hollingsworth. Leading 82-79, Arkansas turned it over, the Hilltoppers took possession and were ultimately able to escape with a Power 5 victory on their home court.
WKU will have nine days off before its next game – an exhibition vs. Kentucky Wesleyan on Dec. 17 – which will give the Toppers plenty of time to rest and practice – something they haven’t been able to do much as of late.
“That’s big,” Anderson said of the much-needed break. “We’ve got two early losses in the season and just things we need to work on. Now we’ve got time to do that, so that’s big.”