Western Kentucky survived Jhivvan Jackson playing the game of his life Thursday to pull out a Conference USA win.
Now the Hilltoppers have the chance to pick up a fifth win in six games and stay within striking range of the top of the league standings.
WKU (12-10 overall, 5-4 C-USA) welcomes Texas-El Paso (7-13, 2-7) to E.A. Diddle Arena on Saturday night. ESPN+ will broadcast the 6 p.m. tipoff.
Coach Rick Stansbury saw his team beat Texas San-Antonio 96-88 in overtime Thursday despite Jackson going off for 46 points. It was the Roadrunner guard’s career-best and the most a Topper opponent has ever scored at Diddle Arena.
WKU came back from an eight-point second-half deficit to force OT, then sealed the win in the extra period. Center Charles Bassey and guard Lamonte Bearden scored 22 points each for the Hilltoppers.
“To win it the way we won it, we won with a guy who keeps shooting it in your face,” Stansbury said. “That’s not easy, now. It takes a lot of emotional energy from you.
“To survive that and find a way to win … it gives you energy, gives you emotion. That’s the way I expect us to be ready for Saturday night.”
Thursday’s win was a crucial one for WKU as it tries to keep pace in a crowded conference race.
The Toppers’ 5-4 conference record has them sixth in the league standings, but only 1½ games behind first place Old Dominion (17-6, 7-3). Four C-USA teams are tied for second between the Monarchs and WKU with 6-3 league records.
Five games remain for the Tops between now and the start of bonus play. Ken Pomeroy projections peg WKU as a favorite in each of those games except for a Feb. 9 tilt at North Texas.
The Hilltoppers, who were picked in the preseason to win Conference USA, started league play 1-3.
Now they’ve won four of their last five and are chasing a spot in the top five-team tier for the regular-season-ending, four-game bonus play schedule. Making that tier also guarantees a top-five seed for March’s conference tournament.
WKU held seven of its first eight C-USA opponents to 70 or fewer points. Jackson (46 points) and teammate Keaton Wallace (26) busted that mark alone Thursday, combining for 72.
But the Toppers scored 78 points in regulation – the most they’ve tallied in any league game so far – and finished with 96 for the game.
“Again, I don’t care how good you are defensively, you’ve got to score some points,” Stansbury said. “We haven’t been scoring points very well.”
WKU got the chance to score more points Saturday because it cut down on turnovers, posting a season-low six.
Bearden ran the offense well in his first start at point guard since Dec. 19. The redshirt senior collected seven assists vs. one turnover during his 39 minutes on the floor.
“Regardless of if I’m starting or coming off the bench, I’m trying to give the same energy when I come out there,” the Milwaukee native Bearden said.
Stansbury wants to see more “steady play” from Bearden – the team’s only senior – Saturday and beyond.
“That’s where it starts at right there – a guy who can not turn it over, a guy who can create some easy plays for other people,” Stansbury said. “We haven’t had that consistently. Tonight was by far the best performance we’ve had from our point guards all season long.”
First-year coach Rodney Terry brings a young UTEP squad to Diddle Arena. The Miners start three freshmen, including bulky forward Efe Odigie (13.6 points per game, 10 rebounds per game).
Odigie will battle on the boards with Bassey, who’s put up his own impressive stats lately, including his 22-point, 18-rebound outing Thursday.
Bassey averages 14.6 ppg and 10 rpg for the season, while increasing those figures to a team-best 14.8 ppg and 11.4 rpg in conference play.
Over Bassey’s last four games, the freshman has averaged 17.3 points and 15 rebounds while shooting 69.4 percent from the field and making 19 of 22 free throws.
Bassey is one of seven players in the nation with at least three games this season of 17-plus rebounds. All three have come since Jan. 21.
WKU is 5-3 this season when trailing at halftime and 7-7 when leading at halftime. … The Hilltoppers have made at least one 3-pointer in 998 straight games dating back to March 15, 1987. … Guard Taveion Hollingsworth (837 points) could potentially reach 1,000 career points in less than two years. He’d join Clem Haskins and Jim McDaniels as the only WKU players to accomplish that feat. … The Toppers rank 11th in the country in total blocked shots (112), 18th in blocked shots per game (5.1) and 20th in percentage of opponents’ shots blocked, per Ken Pomeroy statistics (14.3). … Bassey sits eighth on WKU’s freshman scoring list with 322 points. Next on the list is No. 7 Patrick Sparks (343).
Texas-El Paso (7-13, 2-7) at Western Kentucky (12-10, 5-4)
6 p.m. Saturday, E.A. Diddle Arena
Nigel Hawkins, g, 6-4, fr. (12.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg); Efe Odigie, f, 6-9, fr. (13.6 ppg, 10 rpg); Jordan Lathon, g, 6-4, fr. (9.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg); Paul Thomas, f, 6-8, sr. (7.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg); Ountae Campbell, g/f, 6-4, r-jr. (3.3 ppg, 3 rpg)
Lamonte Bearden, g, 6-3, r-sr. (8 ppg, 2.5 apg); Taveion Hollingsworth, g, 6-2, so. (15 ppg, 4.5 rpg); Josh Anderson, g, 6-6, so. (11.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg); Jared Savage, g/f, 6-5, r-jr. (13 ppg, 4.6 rpg); Charles Bassey, c, 6-11, fr. (14.6 ppg, 10 rpg)
Rodney Terry (7-13, first year; 133-121 overall), UTEP; Rick Stansbury (54-38, third year; 347-204 overall), Western Kentucky
Western Kentucky leads 4-1 (WKU won last meeting 72-60 on Feb. 1, 2018, in El Paso, Texas)
Last time out
UTEP lost 91-86 at Marshall on Thursday; Western Kentucky beat Texas-San Antonio 96-88 in overtime at home Thursday