Rick Stansbury’s third team at Western Kentucky is loaded with talent, but the Hilltoppers have been underwhelming through the early stages of Conference USA play.
On Thursday at Southern Miss, WKU took advantage of a stone cold start for the Golden Eagles in a 66-63 victory at Reed Green Coliseum.
Stansbury pointed Thursday night to the 14-point, 17-rebound performance by his star freshman center, Charles Bassey, but USM’s inability to convert on free throws and shooting struggles from the Eagles’ top two backcourt players proved to be the difference in the game.
“The first half, I thought we were really soft or nervous, whatever you want to call it,” USM coach Doc Sadler said. “We weren’t the aggressive basketball team we have been. Sometimes a zone will make you do that.”
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USM (11-9, 3-5) didn’t do a great job of getting to the free throw line and converted just 5 of 12 when given the opportunity.
USM’s top two scorers, Cortez Edwards and Tyree Griffin, each provided 8 points a piece and combined to hit 7 of 25 shots from the field.
The combination of Leonard Harper-Baker’s performance in the post and LaDavius Draine’s hot outside shooting in the second half allowed USM to close the gap in the final 20 minutes after trailing 34-21 at the break. Draine hit four consecutive 3-pointers over a 5-minute stretch that ended at 11:09, cutting the deficit to 52-47.
USM managed to stay within striking distance for much of the final 10 minutes, but the Eagles were at their closest when Griffin hit a 3-pointer with 3 seconds remaining for the final basket of the game.
Draine finished with 15 points and six rebounds on 5-of-11 shooting.
Bassey and Jared Savage both led WKU with 14 points.
WKU (11-9, 4-3) gave up double-digit leads in the second half over three consecutive defeats early in conference play so Thursday night’s finished provided a sigh of relief for the Hilltoppers.
“There have been teams in the second half that have made runs at us and we lose in the last minute — two of them by one basket,” Stansbury said. “We didn’t finish. The last couple of games, I think our guys have grown up some.”
After struggling through a three-game losing skid, Stansbury’s squad has responded with a three-game winning streak to move to 4-3 in conference play.
For WKU to make a run in C-USA play, Stansbury hopes to see someone to step up and take charge at point guard.
“Just more maturity, more growth, more experience,” he said. “We haven’t been consistent at point guard. We’ve started five different point guards. We haven’t had a lot of consistency. We’ve still had great moments of playing really great, go to Arkansas and win, beat Wisconsin, beat a St. Mary’s, beat a West Virginia and then turn around lose to a team you’re not supposed to. I haven’t panicked in conference play. Old Dominion is tough at Old Dominion. On the road, it’s never easy.”
Stansbury, who served 14 seasons as the head coach at Mississippi State from 1998-2012, has attracted a bevy of blue chip prospects to WKU, including Bassey. The 6-foot-11, 245-pound native of Nigeria entered the game averaging 14.2 points and 9.4 rebounds.
Bassey proved efficient Thursday when given the ball in the post and hit 7 of 10 attempts from the field.
Sadler believes the freshman is likely destined for the NBA.
“I think he is a player in today’s game that continues to play and compete when he doesn’t get the ball,” Sadler said. “He’s always around that basket cleaning up. I’m sure they try hard to get him the ball, but when they don’t get him the ball he still plays hard. That’s rare for a big guy that doesn’t get the ball as much as he does. He runs extremely well, looks to have awesome hands. He’s the first pro that’s been in this league since I’ve been in it the last 5 years.”
USM senior guard Dominic Magee, who has been under indefinite suspension, was dressed out for Thursday’s game, but did not see any game action.
“He just has to stick it out and get himself back in shape,” Sadler said. “I just didn’t think there was anyway he could play tonight. That doesn’t say he can’t play on Saturday (against Marshall at 4 p.m. in Hattiesburg.)”