BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — WKU Hilltopper Basketball led the entire way Saturday against a stout Saint Mary’s squad, heading into the holidays with a 71-68 home victory at E.A. Diddle Arena.
The Hilltoppers (6-6) shot 58 percent for the game and stepped up on the defensive end, holding Saint Mary’s to 40.6 percent shooting and recording nine blocks.
WKU led by double digits with less than 10 minutes to play, but the Gaels (8-6) got back within three with the ball in the final seconds. The Hilltoppers stood their ground on the final possession and secured the victory.
“We had a terrific crowd,” WKU head coach Rick Stansbury said. “… They showed up and helped us win that game. They saw a really good basketball game, two good teams. Saint Mary’s is a really good basketball team – I thought the best team we’d played all season. But today, we were a pretty good basketball team. It started with our effort. I thought we had unbelievable effort for 40 minutes.”
Sophomore guard Josh Anderson led WKU in scoring with 18 points off the bench.
He helped spark an 11-3 run with nine straight points after Saint Mary’s closed to three with 6:40 left, including a 3-pointer and a thunderous dunk.
“We moved the ball way more on offense,” Hollingsworth said. “Offense was kind of lacking the past few games, and we play better defense than we have the last four, five games. It showed tonight. When you sit down (and guard), you create your offense.”
Freshman guard Dalano Banton filled up the stat sheet with 11 points, six assists, four rebounds and three blocks in his third career start.
Saint Mary’s got 54 of its 68 points combined from Jordan Ford (28 points) and Malik Fitts (26).
WKU took its largest lead of the game at 32-19 at the 2:58 mark of the first half with a 12-2 run, capped by Banton’s block, rebounds and coast-to-coast layup.
The Hilltoppers still led 34-27 at halftime, and Savage buried a 3-pointer to open the second half and give them even more of a cushion.
Four straight free throws by Hollingsworth made it 71-62 with 43 seconds left, but Saint Mary’s scored three straight baskets to get back within three.
WKU stood tall at the end as the Gaels got up four shots but never found the basket.
“It’s a great win,” Anderson said. “Coming off that loss (Wednesday at Belmont), it was good to get that win in front of the home crowd and boost our confidence back up.”
The Hilltoppers now break for the holidays before returning to finish non-conference play at home against No. 16/17 Wisconsin at 4:30 p.m. CT Saturday, Dec. 29 at E.A. Diddle Arena.
The game will air on CBS Sports Network. Wisconsin will be the first active member of the Big Ten Conference to play in Diddle Arena since Michigan on Nov. 26, 1977, as well as the first ranked team to play at WKU since No. 25 Old Dominion on Jan. 10, 2015.
“We’ve been losing games we feel like we should’ve won, so when we win a big game, it’s like, ‘We have to do this all the time. We’ve got to come out with the same fight all the time,'” Banton said. “We’re just going to get better as a team, and there’s more to come for sure.”