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Hilltoppers win C-USA championship

Mar. 7—BOWLING GREEN — The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers didn’t let their big moment slip away on Saturday afternoon.

Less than 24 hours after losing a two-point heartbreaker to Old Dominion, WKU got a clutch three-point conversion from senior guard Taveion Hollingsworth with 25 seconds to play and held on to defeat the Monarchs, 60-57, before an ecstatic crowd in E.A. Diddle Arena.

In so doing, the Hilltoppers wrapped up the Conference USA East division title, the No. 1 seed in next week’s league tournament in Frisco, Texas, and the program’s 43rd conference championship — third most nationally all time.

It marks Western’s first regular-season title since 2009, when it was a member of the Sun Belt Conference.

“It’s always special to win a championship,” WKU head coach Rick Stansbury said. “I’m very proud of the way our guys battled after a tough, emotional loss on Friday night. I’m just so proud of the way we fought ’til the very end — great defense, diving after loose balls, getting critical defensive rebounds. We had the will to win.

“This is a great moment for our program, for our great fans, and for these great young men who play the game for us. This is one of those moments they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”

In a tense, physical, hard-fought matchup, ODU had the upper hand with under six minutes to play following a three-point conversion by Mekhi Long and a driving layup by Malik Curry that provided the Monarchs a 53-49 lead.

WKU (18-6, 11-3 C-USA) answered with a runner from Jordan Rawls and a 3-pointer by Luke Frampton, but a putback by Kalu Ezikpe put ODU back on top, 55-54.

Rawls hit two free throws at 4:29 and Carson Williams made one of two foul shots at 3:30 to give the Hilltoppers a 57-55 lead, but Curry scored on a driving layup at 1:27 to tie the contest.

That set the stage for Hollingsworth’s heroics.

The veteran 6-foot-2 backcourt star banked in a 10-foot runner, was fouled on the play and calmly sank his subsequent free throw to give WKU a three-point edge.

On its final possession, ODU sprung Ezikpe free for an open 3-pointer but the 6-8, 235-pound power forward misfired inside the final three seconds and the celebration in Diddle ensued.

“We stepped up and made plays at the end,” Frampton said. “We just kept pushing through even when things weren’t going our way, and that’s what it takes to win championships. We played this game with a winning mentality and I was proud of the way we fought through the adversity we faced.”

Hollingsworth led WKU with 19 points and was the team’s lone double-digit scorer. All-American candidate Charles Bassey, saddled with foul trouble, was limited to seven points, nine rebounds and four blocks. Williams had eight rebounds and Josh Anderson added seven for the Hilltoppers, who won the board battle, 38-27.

Western, which went without a field goal for 9 minutes and 45 seconds in the second half, shot just 34% from the field, but did go 8-of-21 from 3-point range (38%) and made 22-of-28 free throws (79%).

Curry scored a game-best 23 points for Old Dominion (15-7, 11-5 C-USA), which shot 39% overall, but was limited to 29% from distance (6-of-21).

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