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Western Kentucky Head Coach Rick Stansbury discusses strategy with the Hilltoppers during a timeout in overtime in WKU's 95-91 win over Louisiana Tech at E. A. Diddle Arena on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. (Grace Ramey/photo@bgdailynews.com)

The format of Conference USA Bonus Play set itself up to settle the most important game for standings implications before the last one.

Western Kentucky’s loss at North Texas on Sunday secured the Mean Green’s regular-season championship, putting only the final tournament seeding on the outcome of Saturday’s regular-season finale at FIU.

As easy as it would be to write off the lack of importance of Saturday’s 6 p.m. CST tipoff in Miami and look ahead to next week’s C-USA Tournament, it’s far from the outlook of anyone in the Hilltoppers’ locker room.

“I’ve got two more guaranteed games in my college career,” WKU senior Jared Savage said. “I’m playing for everything. I’m going to play my heart out. I don’t care if it’s for the second seed, third seed, I don’t care if I’m playing in Preston (Center). I’m going to give it my all on the court.”

The season is indeed only guaranteed two more games between FIU and whoever WKU meets in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament next Thursday in Frisco, Texas. WKU (19-10 overall, 12-5 C-USA) can be no higher than the No. 2 seed of that tournament and no worse than the No. 3 seed. A win against the Panthers (18-12, 9-8) would lock up the second spot and a loss combined with a win by Louisiana Tech in its Saturday game against Charlotte would make WKU the No. 3 seed.

Emotionally, it’s a far feeling from what WKU had the potential to be playing for against FIU. If WKU had beaten North Texas on Sunday, a win in the finale would’ve given the Hilltoppers their first regular-season championship since 2009 and an automatic bid to the NIT. Taveion Hollingsworth, the team’s best free-throw shooter with an 85 percent success rate, missed two free throws with five seconds remaining that would’ve likely won it for the Hilltoppers, but they played overtime instead and the Mean Green pulled away.

“It was a heartbreaker Sunday, but that didn’t end our season,” Savage said. “We’re still playing and have a chance to go win a championship and get to the NCAA Tournament. That’s what we’re playing for now and I think it brought us closer in the locker room, getting our hearts cut out like that. We’ll be ready going down to Frisco.”

But now WKU’s postseason hopes rest in three days at the Ford Center at The Star, where it’ll need to win three games in as many days to reach the NCAA Tournament, a destination that’s been close but not met since 2013.

“Very obvious we’re not going to win a championship winning the game,” coach Rick Stansbury said. “Very easy for everyone to approach it that way. Just not in anybody’s DNA to look at it that way. As long as they’re keeping score and you’re playing another opponent, we’re going to compete to win. We’re not going to go down and try to save bodies. We’re going to try to compete against a really good team.”

Stansbury’s squad will surely be looking for redemption on this trip. WKU lost 81-76 on Feb. 1 at FIU in a game where it mostly only played its starting five. Senior Camron Justice was out with a back injury, while Jeremiah Gambrell and Isaiah Cozart contributed just two rebounds in 17 combined minutes off the bench.

“I feel like they definitely didn’t get our best punch the first game,” redshirt junior forward Carson Williams said. “We have something to prove going back in with that mentality. Same things for myself, personally.”

FIU forward Osasumwen Osaghae had 18 of his 22 points in the first half against the Hilltoppers on Feb. 1. He leads all of Division I basketball with 114 blocked shots, good for 3.8 per game. The Panthers used effective high ball screens to feed the post and point guard Antonio Daye Jr. had nine assists.

“Daye is hard to keep out of that lane,” Stansbury said. “He’s about as good as there is and that hasn’t always been a strength of ours, keeping that attacking point guard out of that lane. They’re going to spread the floor and make it very difficult.

“Our approach will be the same. They’re keeping score, we’ll try to compete and win the game.”

Western Kentucky (19-10, 12-5) at FIU (18-12, 9-8)

6 p.m. CST, Saturday, Ocean Bank Convocation

Western Kentucky – Taveion Hollingsworth, g, 6-2, jr. (16.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg); Jordan Rawls, g, 6-1, fr. (7.7 ppg, 2.2 apg); Jared Savage, g/f, 6-5, r-sr. (11.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg); Carson Williams, f, 6-5, r-jr. (13.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg); Josh Anderson, g, 6-6, jr. (10.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg).

FIU – Devon Andrews, f, 6-6, r-sr. (15.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg); Isaiah Banks, g, 6-5, jr. (6.1 ppg, 3.0 rpg); Trejon Jacob, g, 6-5, sr. (11.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg); Antonio Daye, Jr., g, 6-1, so. (10.4 ppg, 4.8 apg); Osasumwen Osaghae, f, 6-9, sr. (12.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg).

TV – CBS Sports Network on Facebook

Radio: WKLX 100.7 FM

Coaches: Rick Stansbury (81-52, fourth year; 374-218 overall), Western Kentucky; Jeremy Ballard (38-26 second season; 38-26 overall) FIU.

Series Record: Western Kentucky leads the all-time series 34-5. FIU won the last meeting 81-76 on Feb. 1 in Miami.

Last time out Western Kentucky lost 78-72 in overtime Sunday at North Texas. FIU lost 76-73 at Charlotte on Sunday.{&end}

– Follow WKU athletics beat writer Elliott Pratt on Twitter @EPrattBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

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