CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Following a close, late loss to Western Kentucky in its Conference USA opener Friday, Charlotte had to know it was capable of ending the Hilltoppers’ six-game win streak if it did the right things in game two Saturday.
Trailing by seven at the final media break, the 49ers had to call on that motivation and return to basics.
Charlotte battled from beginning to end and capped it off with a fantastic finish at the free throw line in overtime, taking home a 75-71 victory to split the first series of the league campaign.
“I’m really proud of (my team) – not because we won, but because of the way they played down the stretch,” stated Charlotte coach Ron Sanchez. “You want to keep striving forward and forget about what’s behind. Today, I think they did a really good job of forgetting about yesterday, learning from their mistakes, and doing the non-obvious things really well.”
“We thought we should have won yesterday. We just had a couple mental breakdowns, and a couple mistakes,” added Charlotte guard Jahmir Young. “We were just motivated after the loss yesterday. We came together and we played with unity.”
Charlotte (5-4, 1-1 CUSA) again seized momentum early just as it did Friday, though it did so in a different manner. The 49ers built a six-point advantage on a Jhery Matos bucket nearing the 12-minute mark, as the active defense for which they are known limited Western Kentucky to just six points in that first eight-minute stretch.
Western Kentucky (8-3, 1-1) battled back to seize the lead on a three-point play from Charles Bassey, holding the advantage until Brice Williams splashed a triple to return a one-point lead to Charlotte. A Bassey dunk again leveled the festivities at 25, before the 49ers again created some separation with a 5-0 burst. Milos Supica put home a layup off a screen-and-roll to provide Charlotte a 36-30 advantage at the interval.
The 49ers extended their lead as the second half commenced, stretching the margin as far as nine on a Jhery Matos bucket that compelled a timeout from WKU coach Rick Stansbury. Western countered out of that stoppage with an 8-0 run that drew it within a point at 46-45. Charlotte precariously held off Western until Jordan Rawls popped to the right perimeter for an uncontested three to put his club ahead, 52-51, with 7:27 to play.
Western’s lead grew as high as seven, before Charlotte gradually chipped away. The Niners closed on a 9-2 run over the final segment of regulation, tying the game on a Supica layup with 1:14 to play. Both sides forced contested looks to potentially win the game, and the teams headed to overtime tied at 64.
Taveion Hollingsworth dropped a jumper to give the visitors the lead starting the extra session, but Charlotte answered with four straight free throws to give themselves a three-point advantage. Four more provided Charlotte a five-point lead with 12 seconds to play. A Jordan Rawls jumper clipped the margin to three, but the 49ers were able to salt away the proceedings at the free throw line.
“To get a victory, it just kind of fills your tank a little bit,” said Sanchez. “It’s a big step for us. I think that’s one of the best programs in this conference, year to year. I think Coach (Stansbury) does a phenomenal job with his team. That being said, I really compliment our guys for stepping up, answering the call, and laying their wall and saying, ‘You’re not gonna just come into this house and just take one from us.’”
Hollingsworth led the visiting Hilltoppers with 23 points, including a strong second-half effort that saw the senior from Lexington, Kentucky, collect 21 of those points in the second half and overtime. Charles Bassey added 11, with Jordan Rawls and Josh Anderson totaling 10 apiece. The Hilltoppers connected on 51.1 percent (24-for-47) of their tries from the deck, missing a lone free throw in 20 tries.
Young paced the 49ers for the second day in a row, finishing with 24 on 6-for-12 shooting and 9-for-11 from the stripe. Young also dropped three threes in five tries. Three 49er teammates joined the sophomore Maryland native in doubles, with Jordan Shepherd notching 15, Supica 12, and Matos 10. Charlotte drilled half of its 52 shots and connected on 17-of-24 free throws, including 9-of-10 in bonus time. Charlotte hit 6-of-15 triples.
Both teams head west for their next conference series. Charlotte will travel to Marshall for a two-game series in Huntington, West Virginia. Those games will be contested Jan. 8 at 6:00 (Eastern) and Jan. 9 at 4:00. WKU will host Louisiana Tech on those same days, with game one an 8:00 tip and game two getting underway at 7:00.