DENTON, Texas – Western Kentucky on Saturday endured tired legs, an unfamiliar coaching situation and a home team that had lost only four games all year.

The Hilltoppers overcame all that to make an early defensive statement, then held on for a gritty road victory.

WKU held North Texas to only 15 first-half points and fended off the Mean Green for a 62-59 win Saturday at The Super Pit.

The victory gave the Toppers (15-10 overall, 8-4 Conference USA) their first four-game winning streak of the season. They’ve now won seven of eight since a 1-3 start to C-USA play.

“At the beginning (of league play), we lost three games in a row,” center Charles Bassey told the Daily News. “People didn’t believe in us.

“But we’re doing good right now. … We’re believing in ourselves and we’re doing what it takes to win every time.”

Bassey scored 18 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots. Guard Taveion Hollingsworth added 14 points – three of which came on a banked-in, half-court heave at the end of the first half.

No Hilltopper beyond those two scored more than guard Lamonte Bearden’s eight.

But on a night when WKU produced 11 fewer points than its 73.1 point-per-game average, the Tops limited UNT (20-5, 8-4) to marks of 23-of-67 from the floor and 7-of-32 from the 3-point line.

“As far as our team goes, again, great, great team win, a resilient win,” said Talvis Franklin, WKU’s director of basketball operations. “This team is finding out just how tough they are that we can grind out some of these wins.

“Hats off to our team and our staff for just hanging in there, weathering this storm and finishing this game out.”

For the second straight game, assistant Marc Hsu filled in as the team’s head coach in place of Rick Stansbury, who’s suffered lately from a back injury.

Back pain forced Stansbury to stay behind at the team’s Houston hotel Thursday for its win at Rice. He returned Friday to Bowling Green for further treatment and rest.

Hsu had the tough task Saturday of coaching a team that played a double-overtime game less than 48 hours earlier. He managed minutes by giving his bench players extended time in the first half before playing his starters most of the second.

Thursday and Saturday’s games marked Hsu’s first time in a head coaching role since 2006-07. He was head man then at Laurinburg (N.C.) Prep.

“He gives the players a lot of energy,” the freshman Bassey said of Hsu. “He talks to us and stuff like that. If you don’t do the right thing, he’s going to let you know. He doesn’t hide things from you. …

“That’s what the players need. We go out there, play with good energy and win.”

Bassey said Hsu emphasized to him that he needed to control the paint Saturday. He did that in the early minutes, blocking three first-half North Texas shots and making the Mean Green settle for 3s.

Once UNT took those 3-point attempts, Hollingsworth and his fellow guards were there to challenge them. The Mean Green shot only 7-of-34 from the field the first half and 1-of-15 from beyond the arc.

“We controlled (North Texas’ offense) a little bit the first half, which gave us the chance to spurt out to a pretty sizable lead,” Franklin said. “So (Bassey) was big all the way through protecting that rim and doing the things that he does.”

WKU led 30-15 at halftime but wasn’t taking anything for granted at that point. After all, the Hilltoppers led at the break in each of their four prior Conference USA defeats and have lost seven games this season when up at halftime.

“The earlier experiences, we learn from them,” the sophomore Hollingsworth said. “As soon as we come in the locker room, we already know. We’re all saying that we’ve got to lock in and finish the game. Don’t look at the score. Coach Hsu is telling us to not look at the score.

“We know they’re going to make runs, of course. We expected a run to be made. We’ve just got to keep our composure, like I said, and finish the game.”

WKU and its tired legs hit an offensive wall the second half. The Toppers shot 9-of-23 from the floor over the final 20 minutes and only 1-of-8 from 3-point range.

But WKU made up for its stagnant offense by getting to the foul line, where it went 15-of-17 for the night. Bassey, Bearden and guard/forward Jared Savage hit a combined 12 of 13 free throws.

Guard Umoja Gibson tried to spark a North Texas comeback from the 3-point line. He hit five 3-pointers and scored all of his 18 points over the final 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, Ryan Woolridge was able to find lanes to the basket in the second half that weren’t there in the first. He scored 16 of his 18 points after the break.

The Hilltoppers never let the Mean Green go on any extended runs, though. After a Woolridge layup got UNT within 46-41, Bassey scored four straight points to put WKU up 50-41 with 4:35 left.

Gibson responded with a 3 to bring the Mean Green within six, but Tops guard Josh Anderson answered with a drive for a reverse layup near the end of the shot clock. Then, after a WKU stop, Bassey converted a layup off Bearden’s assist to make the Hilltopper lead 54-44 with 1:59 to go.

“We didn’t want to get too sped up,” Hollingsworth said of the second-half game plan. “We wanted to waste some clock, just be smart.”

North Texas spent the game’s fading minutes trying to mount a furious rally but fell three points short.

WKU now sits tied with the Mean Green for third place in Conference USA, trailing only Old Dominion (20-6, 10-3) and Texas-San Antonio (15-10, 9-3).

“I spoke with (Stansbury) earlier and he said sometimes when different adversity hits, it helps the team to bond in a certain way,” Franklin said. “That’s what this team has done. These guys have come together. …

“They wanted to dedicate this win to coach. They know that he knows they’re doing the right things in his absence.”

Up next

WKU returns home for its final two games before bonus play begins Feb. 23. The first of those will come Thursday night against Middle Tennessee – the only scheduled meeting this season between the two rivals.

The Blue Raiders (8-17, 5-7) led Old Dominion at halftime Saturday in Murfreesboro, Tenn., before losing 55-50 to the first-place Monarchs.

Notes

Stansbury is 57-38 in his third year at WKU and 350-204 overall in his coaching career. Saturday’s game counted toward Stansbury’s win-loss record even though he was physically unable to coach in it. … The Hilltoppers are 20-5 all time vs. North Texas and 7-2 against the Mean Green in Denton. … Hollingsworth’s 3-pointer with 4:22 left in the first half stretched WKU’s streak of consecutive games with at least one made 3 to 1,001 dating to March 15, 1987. … The Toppers limited UNT guard Roosevelt Smart to a 1-of-12 shooting effort and two points. He came in averaging 11.8 ppg. … Announced attendance at The Super Pit was 8,195.{&end}

– Follow Daily News sports reporter Brad Stephens on Twitter @BradBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

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Bowling Green Daily News sports reporter primarily covering Western Kentucky football and men's basketball.

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