WKU coach Rick Stansbury breaks down the Hilltoppers 79-62 win over Boston College in the first round of the NIT.
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — It wasn’t the NCAA Tournament, but Western Kentucky made the most of its first NIT game in 12 years, keeping its season alive while outplaying an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent.
Tuesday night’s impressive 79-62 victory by WKU over Boston College delighted a spirited and noisy crowd at Diddle Arena while sending the Hilltoppers into the tournament’s second round.
Fourth-seeded WKU (25-10) will face either No. 1 seed Southern Cal (23-11) or No. 8 seed UNC Asheville (21-12) in the next round.
And it’ll take some momentum after eliminating No. 5 seed Boston College (19-16), which won a pair of games last week in the ACC Tournament.
Senior Justin Johnson scored 19 points and Taveion Hollingsworth added 18 to lead WKU, which rebounded remarkably well after this past weekend’s heartbreaking 67-66 loss to Marshall in the championship game of the Conference USA Tournament.
WHERE THE GAME TURNED
WKU ended the second and third quarters (yes, the NIT is using four 10-minute quarters) with a flourish to help seize control for good. The Hilltoppers closed the first half on an 11-2 run, turning a 31-30 deficit into a 41-33 lead at intermission. BC went nearly four minutes without a field goal during the run, which was capped by a Johnson basket.
Johnson, too, made a play in the final seconds of the third quarter, racing from the defensive end to find Hollingsworth in transition for an open 3-pointer at the buzzer, giving the Toppers a 59-44 lead that felt safe entering the fourth quarter.
If not Johnson, give them to WKU’s fans. For a Tuesday night on short notice, Diddle Arena was crowded and rocking. It clearly made a difference, inspiring WKU’s team after that tough loss to Marshall while at times rattling Boston College, which had experienced plenty of tough road games in the ACC.
Oh, and Hollingsworth, a Lexington native, became the all-time freshman scoring leader in WKU basketball history, breaking Courtney Lee’s record of 461 points set in 2004-05.
Numbers told of a lopsided game. WKU shot a sizzling 31-of-56 (55.4 percent) from the field, while BC was only 25-of-65 shooting (38.5 percent). The Toppers had more blocks (5 to 2) assists (16-7), points in the paint (40-26), steals (8-4) and fast break points (15-2).
Tuesday marked WKU’s first NIT appearance since 2006 and its first NIT victory since 2005, when the Hilltoppers beat Kent State in overtime in the first round before losing at Wichita State.
WKU will face the winner of Tuesday’s late West Coast game. If USC beats UNC Asheville, the Hilltoppers would travel to face the top-seeded Trojans in Los Angeles.
The Toppers haven’t won more than one game in an NIT since 1948.