BOWLING GREEN — Western Kentucky has enjoyed a host of come-from-behind victories in its rich basketball history, but there have been few quite like Thursday night’s.
Down 12 with 3:20 to go and some fans heading for the E.A. Diddle Arena exits, the Taveion Hollingsworth-fueled Hilltoppers roared from behind to stun visiting Old Dominion 71-69 in a game that will long be remembered by everyone who stayed until the end.
“This is a good reminder that it’s a 40-minute game,” Western head coach Rick Stansbury said. “Things didn’t look very good there for the first 37 minutes, but I’m awfully proud of our guys for hanging in there, fighting to the finish — all the credit goes to them.
“We were able to come back because we were able to score with the clock stopped in the final three minutes. We put it in Taveion’s hands at the end because he has a knack for getting to that rim and drawing fouls.
“The press worked for us because we trapped without fouling, forcing Old Dominion to do something with the basketball. That was really key down the stretch.”
In a rematch of last year’s Conference USA Tournament championship game won by ODU, Western (11-6, 4-1 C-USA) still trailed by six points after two free throws by ODU’s Xavier Green with 46 seconds to play,
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but Hollingsworth hit two free throws of his own at 0:38 and the Monarchs turned the ball back to the Toppers on a jump ball with 35.3 seconds to go.
Hollingsworth then made a clutch 16-footer at 0:29 to pull Western within 68-66.
Aaron Carver made one-of-two foul shots at 0:18 to push Old Dominion in front by three, but Hollingsworth — fouled on a drive to the basket — hit a pair of free throws at 0:11 to pull the Hilltoppers within a point.
Continuing to hound ODU with full-court pressure, WKU turned the Monarchs over again via another jump ball (the third tie-up in 26 seconds) at 0:09 — giving the Toppers a chance to win it at the end.
Hollingsworth, who scored Western’s final nine points, did just that with a driving layup and he was fouled on the play with 3.5 seconds left — sending those fans still in Diddle into an absolute frenzy. The 6-foot-2 junior guard then calmly sank his free throw to put the Toppers up by two.
ODU had two shots near the basket in the final seconds — the putback actually going in the basket, but clearly after the final horn had sounded.
“Give our fans who stayed a big assist there at the end,” Stansbury said. “The crowd gave us great energy in that final stretch, helped us get over the hump in a game in which our players never gave up. Those who stayed were rewarded with a great finish.”
Old Dominion (6-11, 2-2) was in control most of the way, bolting to an 8-1 lead before Western came alive and worked its way to a 31-28 halftime advantage.
The Monarchs, however, opened the second half with a 10-2 run to secure a lead they would maintain until the final seconds.
“It was just one of those nights,” Old Dominion head coach and Owensboro native Jeff Jones said. “Give Western Kentucky credit, but we’ve just got to be stronger with the basketball at the end. Western Kentucky was aggressive at the end and we weren’t.”
The injury-riddled Hilltoppers, playing without starting guard Camron Justice (back) for the second consecutive game, were led by Hollingsworth’s game-high 23 points.
WKU also got significant production from Josh Anderson (13 points), Carson Williams (12 points, eight rebounds), Jordan Rawls (11 points) and Jared Savage (10 points, 10 rebounds).
The Hilltoppers won despite being outrebounded, 40-28.
ODU was paced by Jason Wade, who scored 22 points, and Malik Curry, who added 20. Carver secured a game-best 11 rebounds and Wade grabbed 10.
Western is back in Diddle Arena at 4 p.m. on Saturday hosting Charlotte, which has not lost a league game in four outings.