LOS ANGELES -- The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers pounded the ball inside to Justin Johnson, 23 points, early and got buckets from him late as they defeated the USC Trojans 79-75 in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament, Monday night at the Galen Center, ending its season.
Proving the NCAA Tournament selection committee wrong would turn out to be a tougher task than expected when leading scorer and rebounder Chimezie Metu, who chose not to play in the NIT to stay healthy for NBA draft preparations.
Metu cheered his team on from the stands. After the game USC's head coach Andy Enfield said the administration made the decision that Metu was not allowed to sit on the bench with the team since he was eligible and not injured but made the decision not to play. Freshman Victor Uyaelunmo got the start in place of Metu. Uyaelunmo opened the scoring with an easy dunk but didn't do much else.
"We much rather had him in than the other big guy [Metu] who was starting," said Stansbury.
The 2018 version NIT is experimenting with four rules modifications. First is the three-point line extended 20 inches to beyond 22 feet. The second is the free throw lane widened from 12 to 16 feet. Third, the game will be divided into four 10-minute quarters instead of 20 minute halves. Lastly, the shot clock resets to 20 seconds after an offensive rebound, opposed to the full 30.
Extending the three point line may have had a direct impact on the game's outcome. In the final minute, with the Trojans down by two points, Jordan Usher shot an airball from the right wing.
"We backed off Usher late in the game, hoping the freshman would take a shot and he took a shot," said Western Kentucky's head coach Rick Stansbury. "We didn't want McLaughlin beating us. We didn't want that big boy on the roll beating us. We didn't want Stewart running off a double screen.
"The guy that we were going to take a chance on was Usher. And he jumped up and didn't make the shot. You have to roll with your percentages and we were lucky to get out of here with the W."
After Usher airballed with 24 seconds left, the Trojans, inexplicably, failed to foul Western Kentucky to extend the game. Instead the Hilltoppers broke an attempted trap for an easy dunk to seal the ball game.
Elijah Stewart finished with 20 points. Jordan McLaughlin dished out 14 assists.
The game was essentially decided at the free throw line. Western Kentucky made 16 of 17 from the charity stripe while USC made only eight of 19. According to Stansbury, this has been the Hilltoppers M.O. all season as his team has made more free throws than its opponents have attempted this year.
The Trojans held the lead for most of the game. Powered by Elijah Stewart's 10 points, including two from beyond the extended arc, USC led 23-18 at the end of the first quarter. Johnson, the Hill Toppers' leading scorer and rebounder on the season, scored 10 of his team's 18 points in the first quarter.
"We were much more efficient around the rim. I didn't do a good job of taking more advantage, using Justin tonight," said Stansbury.
The second quarter played out much different than the first, as the Hill Toppers tightened up on defense, forcing the Trojans to take contested jumpers. On the offensive side of the ball, Jake Ohmer ignited visitors by draining two deep threes early in the second quarter. The halftime score was 40-39 in favor of the Hilltoppers.
The Hilltoppers looked like they were going to pull away in the third when their lead was stretched to seven points with 1:43 left in the quarter. However, USC ended the quarter on an 8-2 run that featured Stewart catching a lob from McLaughlin, bringing the crowd to its feet and hitting a three to end quarter. Trojans still trailed by one to end the quarter.
USC came out in the fourth quarter riding momentum, opened quarter on 9-2 run to take a six point lead. The Hilltoppers battled back with a run of their own to take a lead. The Hilltoppers went to Johnson late and he closed it out for them.