RUSTON, La. – Western Kentucky fell late after building a solid lead in its Conference USA opener.

Kenneth Lofton Jr. made two free throws with 5.4 seconds left to give Louisiana Tech a 74-73 victory over the Hilltoppers on Saturday at Thomas Assembly Center in Ruston, La.

“I feel like we didn’t come to play until the end of the game,” WKU sophomore point guard Dayvion McKnight said. “We played the first 20 minutes and a little bit of the second half, but I feel like we didn’t finish.”

WKU (8-6 overall, 0-1 C-USA) led by 12 points after a 3-pointer from Josh Anderson with 4:09 left – it led by as many as 17 in the half – and the Hilltoppers didn’t have a field goal from there as their lead fell apart.

Jairus Hamilton came up with a steal on Louisiana Tech’s (11-3, 2-0) ensuing possession, but the Hilltoppers failed to turn it into points after two tries at the other end. Anderson came up with a fast-break block to keep WKU’s lead, but Hamilton turned it over and Amorie Archibald had a layup with 3:01 left to make it 68-58. WKU head coach Stansbury was assessed a technical foul after the play and the Bulldogs continued on to make it an 8-0 run to get within four.

“Getting beat sometimes is part of the game. I’ve had plenty of losses. I can handle getting beat,” Stansbury said. “It’s those games that you give away and wrap it – we wrapped this one up and put a bow on it – and it takes away from what our kids had done for 37 minutes.

“We let a play – we’re up 10 with the ball with 3 minutes and a few seconds – and we take off in transition. Hold the ball. We turn it over, they score. I’m yelling at my player, ‘Where you going?’ The referee calls a T on me for yelling at my player, which that’s horrible. That’s absolutely a horrible situation, and he’s at the other end – I’m not even looking at him. I don’t even know who called it even. It’s a four-point swing with the ball. Then we had other opportunities to go to the foul line and seal it with a couple free throws and we didn’t do that.”

The Hilltoppers got their lead back to six with four free throws from Anderson with a Cobe Williams layup sandwiched in between, before Williams connected on two triples – separated in part by two missed free throws from Jamarion Sharp – to tie the game 72-all with 16 seconds left.

Keaston Willis fouled Camron Justice after the second make, but Justice made just one of his two free throw attempts. Lofton was fouled on his attempt with 5.4 seconds left and made both shots from the line, and McKnight’s last-second heave was no good as Louisiana Tech won 74-73 – its 17th consecutive win at home.

“Just, I guess, lack of focus down the stretch,” Justice said. “Didn’t make the plays we should of and they did.”

Lofton finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Bulldogs, while Williams had 18, Archibald had 17 and Willis had 11. Louisiana Tech – which beat Marshall 79-56 in its league opener Thursday – is next scheduled to travel to UTEP on Thursday.

Justice led WKU with 22 points, McKnight had 20 and Anderson had 15. The Hilltoppers shot 46% (26-of-56) from the field in the game and 59% (13-of-22) from 3-point range, but were outdone at the free-throw line by Louisiana Tech, which went 15-of-20 compared to WKU’s 8-of-12.

WKU held the lead for the majority of the game – 38 minutes and 19 seconds, compared to Louisiana Tech’s 27 seconds – and got off to a hot start before being unable to close the win.

“With 3 minutes to go, we were still up 10,” Stansbury said. “Defensively we were still pretty good (in the second half) even though they scored points, but we scored too though. We were better offensively in that stretch. ... You put yourself in a position with 3 minutes to go just to run the clock out basically.”

The Hilltoppers used a strong defensive effort in the first half to take a 10-point lead into the break. WKU held Louisiana Tech to just 18% (5-of-28) shooting through 20 minutes, including just two 2-point field goals.

WKU’s defensive effort included a stretch of over 8 minutes where it held the Bulldogs without a field goal. The Hilltoppers used a 15-2 run during the stretch to take a 10-point lead with 11:41 left in the half, but despite its poor shooting, Louisiana Tech kept the game within reach with the help of 8-of-11 shooting from the free-throw line, including 6-of-8 shooting from the stripe from Lofton – the league’s Freshman of the Year last season who entered averaging 17.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. Lofton was just 1-of-6 from the field in the half.

“To be completely honest, they didn’t (hit) many shots early and then they got hot down the stretch when it was important,” Justice said. “That was kind of the turning point.”

WKU is scheduled to host FIU next Saturday in a 2 p.m. game at E.A. Diddle Arena.{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.