Dominant defensive effort secures Hilltoppers’ title game berth

FRISCO, Texas – Western Kentucky is riding its defense for a deep Conference USA Tournament run. And the Hilltoppers are plowing their way to enough offense along the way.

“Defense wins championships,” center Charles Bassey said, “and that’s what we want to do.”

No. 2 seed WKU clamped down on No. 3 seed Southern Mississippi’s normally efficient offense Friday afternoon in a C-USA semifinal. The Toppers forced 16 turnovers and held the Golden Eagles to a 10-of-32 (31.3 percent) second-half shooting effort.

Offensively, WKU was content to draw fouls and go to the free-throw line. The Hilltoppers shot 34 foul shots and made 24 of them, while USM was just 6-of-8 from the line.

Combine a stout defense and aggressive offense with a 44-27 rebounding edge, and it all added up to a 70-59 WKU win Friday at The Star.

“As this team has played and played more, they’re growing up a little bit,” Tops coach Rick Stansbury said. “They’ve gained a little experience. There’s no substitute for experience.

“Again, we’ve got some players that a big stage and big game brings out another level of energy and toughness.”

With its 11-point victory, WKU (20-13) clinched a spot in Saturday night’s Conference USA Tournament title game vs. No. 1 seed Old Dominion. The winner clinches an automatic NCAA Tournament berth.

Friday’s victory marked the Hilltoppers’ second in a row they’ve locked down an opponent’s offense.

On Thursday, WKU allowed No. 10 seed North Texas a paltry 16 first-half points. It never let the Mean Green sniff a comeback in a 67-51 quarterfinal win.

The Toppers were effective again on defense Friday vs. a Golden Eagles squad that’s tough to guard. Southern Miss entered the tournament shooting 47.8 percent from the field and committing only 10.9 turnovers per game during league play.

But WKU’s length bothered the guard-driven Golden Eagles on Friday, just as it did during the teams’ two regular-season meetings. Coach Doc Sadler’s team has lost only four games since Jan. 24, and three of those losses have come to the Hilltoppers.

USM guard Tyree Griffin scored 19 points, but produced twice as many turnovers (eight) as assists (four). Cortez Edwards (10 points), Leonard Harper-Baker (seven), LaDavius Draine (six) and Dominic Magee (four) were all held below their scoring averages.

“We had to do a better job of playing with pace and spacing and we didn’t do a good job of that,” said Edwards, an All-C-USA Second Team performer. “Their size affected us.”

Edwards’ shot at the halftime buzzer gave the Golden Eagles a 29-27 lead after 20 minutes of play. A Griffin 3 with 14:47 to go made it 42-36 Southern Miss.

From that point forward, WKU outscored the Golden Eagles 34-17. Guard Josh Anderson started that charge, scoring six straight points to turn a 42-38 hole into a 44-42 lead with 12 minutes to go.

Anderson finished with a team-high 18 points by attacking the basket and getting to the line, where he went 8-of-11.

“The thing you’ve got to do is drive it,” Stansbury said. “Those guys drove it and finished plays.”

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Source:: Daily times


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