Taveion Hollingsworth

Western Kentucky senior guard Taveion Hollingsworth (11) is shown here in a Feb. 13 game against Rice at E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green. Hollingsworth is currently eighth on the Hilltoppers’ all-time scoring list with 1,758 points.

One of the most naturally laid back basketball players to ever put on a uniform at Western Kentucky, Taveion Hollingsworth nonetheless has a noticeable sense of urgency about him these days.

It’s not a stretch to understand why.

Already the program’s all-time leader in minutes played, Hollingsworth is in the senior year of his exceptional collegiate career, and he fully understands this is his last chance for the Hilltoppers to reach the NCAA Tournament on his watch.

Every game seems bigger. Every opportunity must be taken advantage of.

“We worked hard while we were out,” the 6-foot-2, 165-pound guard said, in reference to a 19-day layoff due to COVID-19-related issues prior to last weekend’s series sweep of Rice. “We weren’t playing games, but we were working hard to get better at our game.

“Just because we were out didn’t mean we’re going to come back rusty.”

And WKU did not. The Hilltoppers were sharp, indeed, while defeating Rice by scores of 77-71 and 89-66 on consecutive nights in E.A. Diddle Arena.

Hollingsworth averages a team-best 30.3 minutes per game for a Hilltopper team that stands 15-4 overall and 8-2 in Conference USA. Western has won six consecutive games and has worked itself into position for NCAA Tournament at-large consideration.

But Hollingsworth insists WKU, which on Sunday announced a scheduled game at No. 6 Houston for 6 p.m. on Thursday (ESPN2), must keep the pedal to the metal to get where it desires to be — in the Big Dance for the first time since 2013.

“We’re playing for each other,” said Hollingsworth, whose average of 13.9 points per game is second on the team to All-American candidate Charles Bassey. “We’ve got the target on our back, but we’re not going to let up. We can never get to a point where we’re satisfied. We have to keep pushing, keep working, play until time runs out.”

Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball selection out of Paul L. Dunbar High School in Lexington as a senior in 2017, Hollingsworth is shooting 42% from the floor, including 33% from 3-point range, and is making 82% of his free throws.

Mere numbers, however, do no justice when attempting to describe what he’s meant to the program over the last four seasons.

“Tay is Tay,” fifth-year WKU head coach Rick Stansbury has said of his backcourt star. “He comes to play every night, he’s an intense competitor, and you’d better believe you want a guy like that on your side.

“Taveion knows what it takes to win, knows what it takes for us to be a better team, and he understands his role within it. He’s just been outstanding for us for a long, long time.”

Slowly, methodically, almost imperceptibly, Hollingsworth has made a steady climb up the Hilltoppers’ all-time scoring list — currently sitting eighth with 1,758 career points, with a chance to finish in the top five before all is said and done.

Now, however, Hollingsworth is focused on helping get the Hilltoppers to the next level.

“We just have to play our game to be successful,” Hollingsworth said. “We need to just be ourselves, play at our pace — we do that and we’re going to be all right.”

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