BOWLING GREEN — It took a while for the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers to get going, but when they did visiting Rice had no shot.
Trailing by two points at intermission, WKU turned on the afterburners over the final 20 minutes and handily defeated the Owls 80-66 in a Conference USA basketball game on Thursday night in E.A. Diddle Arena.
“We played much better defense in the second half and that allowed us to get out in transition,” WKU head coach Rick Stansbury said. “It started with defense, and we wound up limiting them to 24 points in the second half, so that’s good defense on our part.
“I thought we were very efficient at both ends of the court after the 10-minute mark of the first half. We had good scoring balance again and we played well as a unit.”
The Hilltoppers (10-6, 2-1 C-USA) return to the hardwood at 3 p.m. on Saturday when defending C-USA Tournament champion North Texas comes calling.
Getting huge contributions from 7-foot-5 center Jamarion Sharp and power forward Jairus Hamilton, Western outscored Rice 13-2 to open the second half and never really lost command thereafter.
The Owls were still within six after a driving layup by Mylyjael Poteat at 15:22, but Hamilton and Camron Justice each hit a pair of 3-pointers in a game-deciding 17-8 run over the next six minutes that left Western with a 70-55 advantage.
The Hilltoppers took their largest lead of the night — 78-61 — on a pair of Josh Anderson free throws with 4:27 to play.
Western started sluggishly.
The Hilltoppers wiped out an early 10-4 deficit with a 7-0 spurt to climb on top by a point, but Rice got a trio of 3-pointers in a 15-2 run that the pushed the visitors from Houston in front, 26-13.
The Owls still led 33-22 after a fastbreak layup by Quincy Olivari at 6:06, but WKU — powered by Josh Anderson and Dayvion McKnight — scored 18 of the next 27 points; pulling within 42-40 at intermission on a tough 14-footer by McKnight just inside the first half buzzer.
Hamilton paced Western with 22 points and 10 rebounds, Anderson poured in 17 points off the bench, McKnight scored 13 points and dished 12 assists, with Sharp and Justice each adding 12 points.
Western shot 49% from the field, including 35% from 3-point range (7-20), and drilled 17-of-22 free throws (77%). The Toppers dished 21 assists and turned the ball over only eight times, won the board battle 38-33, and came away with 10 steals.
Rice (9-6, 2-2 C-USA), which got 15 points from Poteat, shot 42% from the floor, but managed only one 3-point basket in nine attempts after halftime, following a 7-of-18 first-half performance beyond the arc.
“Rice is a very tough basketball team to defend because they have a lot of shooters,” Stansbury said. “Holding them to one 3-pointer in the second half was really key for us.”