The state of Western Kentucky’s roster puts much more value on one extra body. That extra help is mostly needed defensively and to relieve a starting five that’s been playing well over 30 minutes per game, so when that extra body can contribute points, it makes the Hilltoppers that much better.

Camron Justice has been the catalyst in that difference.

For the better part of a month, Justice has battled a back injury that keeps him day-to-day, meaning Rick Stansbury is forced to lean on the graduate senior’s availability based on how he feels on game day.

Justice felt just fine Thursday, dropping 11 points in 21 minutes off the bench in the Hilltoppers’ 65-54 win over Louisiana Tech at E.A. Diddle Arena.

Points were the bonus in Justice’s game. His presence for 21 minutes is where Stansbury measured the value.

“You can’t underestimate or underappreciate just having his body out there and his mind,” Stansbury said. “The cerebralness he plays with, whether he makes a basket or not. We all know he can make baskets.”

Justice’s presence was magnified Thursday considering WKU (15-8 overall, 8-3 C-USA) went through two losses at Florida Atlantic and FIU with no production from its bench. Justice played 11 minutes in the first half at FAU before reaggravating a bulging disc in his back he’s been dealing with for a month.

The Hilltoppers lost both games with its starting five playing over 30 minutes and no point production from the bench.

Justice being back in action Thursday was the clear difference against arguably the best team in Conference USA. WKU entered one game back from Louisiana Tech in the league standings and after the win now sits in second place behind North Texas.

Having the guard available Saturday will be important again for the Hilltoppers hosting Southern Mississippi (7-17, 3-8) at 6:30 p.m.

“It just makes it harder to guard, especially with the six that we’re playing with,” Justice said. “Scoring is pretty even so it’s take-your-pick whoever is having a night that night, just makes it hard and it allows some guys to get some rest. We were struggling there for a bit down in Florida. There were guys playing 30 minutes a game and that was rough on the body and then having to wake up in two days to play another game.”

Justice’s problems started the week WKU traveled to UAB on Jan. 9. He didn’t practice all week and although he dressed that night in Birmingham, Ala., he played just eight minutes before sitting out the rest of the night. He missed two games after that and came back off the bench for a consistent three-game stretch against Charlotte and two games versus Marshall.

The Hindman native returned Thursday and hit two 3-pointers and three free throws as he worked back into a rhythm he’s been out of for a month now.

“It’s really been frustrating,” Justice said of his continuing back complications. “But it is what it is. Just wake up every day, see how it goes and go from there.”

The Hilltoppers will take any production it can from its bench, but the options beyond Justice are two freshmen in Jeremiah Gambrell and Isaiah Cozart and senior Matt Horton in the post.

Justice was a starter before the injury and his veteran presence brings an advantage Stansbury highly values during the February stretch.

“It’s been hard for him to get any kind of rhythm,” Stansbury said. “He basically hasn’t practiced since before the UAB game – been a long time. We’ve saved him for whatever games he’s played in. It’s hard to get your rhythm when you don’t practice some. We need him out there and he can get his rhythm when he’s playing out there and he got his rhythm tonight. It’s huge and you can’t underestimate how valuable he is.”

WKU now shifts to face one of the league’s struggling teams in Southern Miss, which boasts three conference wins over UAB, Rice and Charlotte. The Golden Eagles led by seven at one point against Marshall on Thursday before going scoreless in the last six minutes in a 72-58 loss.

Southern Miss is the second-worst team in the KenPom ratings that WKU has faced this season at No. 262, trailing only Middle Tennessee. Gabe Watson and Tyler Stevenson lead the Golden Eagles with 13.2 and 12.3 points per game, respectively.

Saturday will be a homecoming for WKU Athletics Hall of Famer Anthony Winchester, who serves as video coordinator for the Golden Eagles.

“It’s real easy for Louisiana Tech and everybody to be up for it,” Stansbury said. “We know they’re one of the best teams and a lot of emotion from your players, but again, it counts as one win and it makes that next game bigger. Southern Miss is a good enough team that if you’re not ready to play, they can beat you.

“We can’t overlook anybody. We have to be ready. We need that energy back in this building Saturday.”

Southern Miss (7-17, 3-8) at Western Kentucky (15-8, 8-3)

6:30 p.m., Saturday, E.A. Diddle Arena

Western Kentucky – Taveion Hollingsworth, g, 6-2, jr. (15.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg); Jordan Rawls, g, 6-1, fr. (8.6 ppg, 2.2 apg); Jared Savage, g/f, 6-5, r-sr. (11.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg); Carson Williams, f, 6-5, r-jr. (13.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg); Josh Anderson, g, 6-6, jr. (9.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg)

Southern Miss – Leonhard Harper-Baker, f, 6-5, r-sr. (8.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg); Gabe Watson, g, 6-2, so. (13.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg); Tyler Stevenson, f, 6-8, so. (12.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg); LaDavius Draine, g, 6-4, jr. (11.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg); Artur Konontsuk, f, 6-7, fr. (6.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg)

TV – Stadium on Facebook

Radio: WKLX 100.7 FM

Coaches: Rick Stansbury (77-50, fourth year; 370-216 overall), Western Kentucky; Jay Ladner (7-17 first season, 128-118 overall) Southern Miss.

Series Record: Western Kentucky leads the all-time series 11-1. WKU won the last meeting 70-59 in the Conference USA Tournament on March 15, 2019.

Last time out: Western Kentucky won 65-54 against Louisiana Tech on Thursday. Southern Miss lost 72-58 at Marshall on Thursday.{&end}

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

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