CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For much of the day Saturday, it looked as though Western Kentucky had more questions than it had answers. Charlotte was beating the Hilltoppers at their own game, getting out in transition, forcing tempo, and causing turnovers.
Gradually, the proceedings shifted. Western displayed the athleticism that led many to project the Hilltoppers near the top of the Conference USA standings, and held off a stout Charlotte challenge, defeating the 49ers, 67-63, In the CUSA opener at Halton Arena Friday afternoon.
“This team (Western) is really talented. They were picked to be the best team in the league for a reason,” said Charlotte coach Ron Sanchez. “I am pleased with the way that we played. We did do a lot of things well. We also made a lot of mental mistakes.”
Charlotte (4-4, 0-1 CUSA) jumped out to an early lead in the first half, which it would not relinquish after seizing it back on a Jahmir Young triple just shy of four minutes into the game. The 49ers stretched the lead to 11 following a 13-4 run, which was largely keyed by Young and Brice Williams. Two Taveion Hollingsworth free throws reduced the margin to five with 4:26 remaining, but the 49ers quickly countered with a burst to again work the advantage to double digits. Luke Frampton drilled a corner triple for WKU at the horn but managed to only knife the Charlotte lead to 36-28 at the interval.
“I was in a little bit of a rhythm (in the first half),” recalled Williams, who scored 17 points in the first half. “The team did a good job sharing the ball, and the ball just kept dropping, so we just kept finding the hot hand.”
Western Kentucky (8-2, 1-0) quickly chewed into the deficit out of the locker room, inducing multiple Charlotte turnovers and working within a single possession on the strength of a 6-0 run. The 49ers continued to hold the visiting Hilltoppers at arm’s length through much of the second half, thwarting repeated attempts to tie or take the lead. The tide finally turned at the 8:27 mark, as Davidson transfer Luke Frampton splashed triple from the right wing to cap a 9-0 run and put his club back ahead, 54-52.
“If you’re not getting the shots that you want, it’s one thing. If you look at that drought, we missed three wide-open jump shots and a layup,” commented Sanchez on the 49ers icy patch. “As a coach, what else can you do but create the shot? We have to make them. It’s not as if the offense wasn’t producing or the defense was stifling us. I think we missed some really, really good looks. We’ve gotta step up and knock those down during that time.”
The tussle continued and eventually turned into a trade of leads. After Charlotte took a 59-58 lead on a Jared Garcia free throw, Western’s Jordan Rawls knocked down his first bucket of the day. The short jumper over an outstretched Charlotte defender with 1:34 to play gave his side a lead it would not relinquish. Charlotte drew within one on a Jahmir Young triple with seven seconds remaining, and a final attempt to miss a free throw to set up a final shot ended up out of bounds off the 49ers.
Young and Williams combined to contribute 44 of the 49ers’ 63 points. Young paced Charlotte and all scorers with 23 points on 6-for-15 shooting, while Williams added 21 on 8-for-9 from the field. Jordan Shepherd went 3-for-10 from the field, adding 10 points. Charlotte shot 43 percent (20-for-47) from the field, but scored just 11 points over the final 10:26.
Hollingsworth topped the scoring for the ‘Tops, tallying 14 points on a 3-for-8 effort from the floor. Freshman Dayvion McKnight tallied 12, including four free throws in the final seven seconds to help put away the 49ers. Charles Bassey battled back spasms and turned in a double-double, scoring 10 points and grabbing 10 boards.
The teams will face off in the second game of the series Saturday afternoon at 4:00. Conference USA regulations require 21 hours between game action. The game will be streamed via Stadium.