Bowling Green, Ky. — Three players scored at least 20 points Tuesday, but it was an improved defensive effort in the second half that helped Western Kentucky University earn an 88-67 non-conference men’s basketball victory over Kentucky Wesleyan at E.A. Diddle Arena.
Leading by one at the break, the Hilltoppers (2-0) limited the Panthers (2-1 regular season, 0-2 exhibition) to just 35 percent shooting — including a 1-of-6 effort from beyond the three-point arc — in outscoring KWC 42-22 over the final 20 minutes.
Courtney Lee finished with 29 points, six rebounds and five steals to pace the Toppers, while both point guards — Tyrone Brazelton and Orlando Mendez-Valdez — combined for 46 points while making 16-of-20 attempts from the field. Brazelton scored a career-best 26 points, going 10-of-14 overall and 4-of-6 from long distance, with Mendez-Valdez connecting on all six shots from the floor to add 20.
It was the second time the trio have scored 20 or more points in a game, as they first accomplished the feat in a 103-96 victory over Louisiana-Monroe on Jan. 31 last year.
“We knew coming in that this would not be an easy game,” Hilltopper head coach Darrin Horn said. “You have to credit our seniors, who did a tremendous job making sure the team was focused on the defensive end in the second half. A lot of good things happened in the second half, we played the way we want to play.”
Although the Toppers scored the first basket of the night, it was the Panthers who led most of the first half behind 11 points from T.J Smith and 10 from Rodney Edgerson off the bench. Jeff Fahnbulleh almost had a double-double in the first 20 minutes as well, posting eight points and 11 rebounds.
KWC jumped out to a five-point advantage twice in the first five minutes on baskets from Fahnbulleh, although Lee tied the score 13-13 with just under 12 minutes to go with a short jumper. It would be the first of six ties in the half.
Edgerson answered by sinking back-to-back three-pointers in a 26-second stretch to give the Panthers their largest lead of the night, 22-13, at 10:47, forcing a Topper time-out. WKU recovered, though, forging another tie at 28-all when Brazelton and A.J. Slaughter made consecutive layups. The Hilltoppers would not go back in front until Mendez-Valdez’ layup and two free throws in a 20-second span made the score 40-38 with just over two minutes to go.
He recorded 17 points on 6-of-6 shooting before the break, adding two assists and a pair of steals in 10 just minutes.
Lee completed a three-point play and made a trey from the right wing in the final two minutes — he collected 15 points and three steals in the opening half — as the Toppers took a 46-45 advantage into the locker room.
KWC overcame 16 turnovers in the first 20 minutes by shooting 63.6 percent (14-of-22) from the floor and making 13-of-15 attempts at the foul line.
The second half was a different story, though, as Brazelton scored twice and Lee followed with three baskets to extend to a 58-50 lead prior to the first media time-out. Fahnbulleh — who finished with 16 points and 13 boards to pace the Panthers — converted a layup with 15-and-a-half minutes to go, but that was as close as KWC would get. Mike Walker extended the advantage to double figures with his tip-in of a missed shot with 11 minutes remaining, and after two Lorenzo Taylor free throws at 8:26 cut the WKU lead to 67-58, the Toppers responded with a 12-2 spurt over the next two-and-a-half minutes to pull away.
In going from a 50-49 lead two minutes after the intermission to a 19-point deficit, the Panthers shot 2-of-10 from the field with eight turnovers.
While both teams ended up making exactly half their shots, WKU connected on 55.2 percent in the second half. And, KWC ended up with 29 turnovers in the contest.
Smith didn’t score in the second half, but he did record four assists and four steals, and Edgerson added only one point in the final 20 minutes. Maros Zuffa collected 10 points, going 8-of-9 at the foul line.
The Hilltoppers won the battle of the boards, 37-29, after outrebounding the Panthers by 12 after the break.
The contest counted in the regular season for WKU, but it was an exhibition for KWC. Except for exempt tournaments, the Panthers cannot play a regular-season game until the Friday before Thanksgiving.
The Toppers will close out a three-game homestand Saturday against Murray State. Opening tip is slated for noon (CST), with WKU’s Senior Day football game against Morehead State to follow at 4 p.m. at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium.