TOPS ROAR PAST SOUTHERN MISS, 70-59, TO REACH C-USA TITLE GAME
WKU Hilltopper Basketball seized control in the second half Friday and earned itself another opportunity for a conference championship.
The second-seeded Hilltoppers (20-13) went on a 19-5 run in the final minutes while trailing, powering their way to a 70-59 victory over No. 3 seed Southern Miss in the Conference USA Championship semifinals at Ford Center at The Star.
WKU advances to its second straight championship game, where it will face top-seeded Old Dominion at 7:30 p.m. CT Saturday. The game will air on CBS Sports Network.
The Hilltoppers have lost two games at Old Dominion this season by a combined seven points. They led the first game 21-0 and the second game by three with less than two minutes to play.
“We’re playing a really good Old Dominion team – a team that’s beat us twice at their place,” WKU head coach Rick Stansbury said. “They’ve both basically been one-possession games at the end. It won’t be easy. We’ll have to play extremely well to have a chance to win this, but we have an opportunity. … That’s all you ask for – the opportunity to compete for a championship.”
To get that opportunity, WKU had to rely on the same tough-minded mentality it used to defeat North Texas in Thursday’s quarterfinals. The program has allowed an average of 55 points per game in the tournament.
The Hilltoppers outrebounded Southern Miss 44-27, grabbed 16 offensive rebounds and outscored the Golden Eagles 18-0 on second-chance points. They also made 24 of 34 free throws, while Southern Miss (20-12) made 6 of 8.
Freshman center Charles Bassey grabbed 14 of those rebounds – six of them offensive – to go along with 10 points for his 16th double-double.
“We want to win the championship, so we have to come out with a different mentality,” Bassey said. “It starts on defense, because defensive teams win championships.”
Sophomore guard Josh Anderson led WKU with 18 points, eight rebounds and three assists while netting 8 of 11 free throws.
Sophomore guard Taveion Hollingsworth added 17 points, including 13 in the second half, and redshirt senior guard Lamonte Bearden had 10 points and four assists.
Redshirt junior guard/forward Jared Savage tallied nine points and six boards.
Southern Miss scored the final seven points of the first half, and Cortez Edwards’ jumper at the buzzer gave the Golden Eagles a 29-27 advantage at the break.
The teams went back and forth in the second half, but Southern Miss still led 48-46 with 9:20 remaining.
Over the next nearly nine minutes, WKU outscored the Golden Eagles 19-5, with Anderson’s free throw making it 65-53 with 50 seconds to go. The beginning of that spurt included two Bassey putbacks sandwiched around a Hollingsworth 3.
Tyree Griffin led Southern Miss with 19 points.
WKU is making back-to-back appearances in its conference title game for the first time since 2012-13.
The Hilltoppers fell 67-66 to Marshall in last year’s final, with Bearden’s potential game-winning shot rimming out in painstaking fashion at the end.
“That means a lot, especially with the way we went out last year,” Hollingsworth said. “Nobody wants to go through that. No one wants to feel that again, so we’re going to come out with energy, and we’re going to play hard.”
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