Bowling Green, Ky. — Solid defense and a balanced offensive attack that featured four players in double figures helped Western Kentucky University bounce back from a six-point loss to the 11th-ranked team in the nation over the weekend.
Courtney Lee scored 16 points in 18 minutes to pace 11 players who found the scoring column, while the Hilltoppers forced 23 turnovers and held North Carolina Central to just 34 percent shooting to earn an 84-53 non-conference basketball victory over the Eagles at E.A. Diddle Arena Tuesday.
Orlando Mendez-Valdez collected 11 points to go along with a career-high six rebounds, three assists and three steals as the Toppers improved to 8-3 heading into a 2:05 p.m. (CST) contest at Southern Illinois — a Sweet 16 participant in last year’s NCAA Tournament — Saturday. D.J. Magley chipped in with 10 points and five rebounds, and Tyrone Brazelton scored 10 on 4-of-6 shooting from the floor. And, Boris Siakam had eight points as well as a season-high 11 rebounds to pace all players on the boards.
In addition to outrebounding NCCU 39-28, WKU held the Eagles (1-13) to a 17-of-50 performance from the field. The Toppers also scored 37 points of NCCU miscues.
It was the Eagles’ eighth consecutive loss.
“Any time you have a situation like we did on Saturday — win or lose — you’re not going to come back and top that environment and energy,” Hilltopper head coach Darrin Horn said. “The first half as a whole we played really good, although we may not have been as good in the second half as we would like to be.
“Coming into the game, the thing we wanted to accomplish was to keep them below their averages in everything they do — we did that.”
Starting with a 12-0 run to begin the game, WKU controlled play from the outset. Once the lead reached double figures, the Eagles never trailed by fewer than 10 points the rest of the way as — after missing their first three shots and committing five turnovers before the first media time-out — they would end up shooting 35 percent with 14 miscues before the break while falling behind by 20 points.
NCCU’s 18 first-half points were the fewest allowed by WKU this season.
Eight players got in the scoring column in the first 20 minutes for the Toppers, with four — Brazelton, Jeremy Evans, Lee and Magley — each scoring two apiece in the opening three minutes of the game. Lee would end the half with 10 points, with six coming on six free-throw attempts, while Brazelton recorded seven and Mendez-Valdez five. WKU was shooting better than 50 percent from the floor until missing its final six attempts of the period.
The Hilltopper advantage climbed to 16 points on a Siakam tip-in with 12 minutes to go, while Lee’s dunk at the six-and-a-half-minute mark pushed the lead to 21, 30-9.
NCCU didn’t reach double digits on the scoreboard until Ashton Sauls hit a jumper with 5:43 to go in the half. Sauls scored nine of the Eagles’ first-half points.
After Lee tipped in a missed shot to open the post-intermission scoring, Tremain Holloway hit a layup while both J’Mell Walters and Joshua Worthy sank three-pointers as part of an 8-1 spurt that left the Eagles trailing 41-26 with 16-and-a-half minutes remaining. But, after a time-out, Mendez-Valdez hit a pair treys as part of a run of 10 unanswered points that pushed the edge to 25 with just under 14 minutes to go.
The WKU lead fell below that mark on one occasion the rest of the way.
The Hilltoppers ended the contest hitting 49.1 percent overall after making 14-of-27 shots (51.9 percent) over the final 20 minutes. They also were 23-of-31 (74.2 percent) at the free-throw line, had 18 assists on 27 field goals and collected 11 steals.
Charles Futrell paced the Eagles with 15 points and nine rebounds, but Sauls was the only other player in double digits after he finished with 14 points.
Evans recorded eight points, going 3-of-4 from the floor while hitting a pair of fouls shots, with the trio of Steffphon Pettigrew, Ty Rogers and A.J. Slaughter contributed five points each. Adam Howard added four points as well.