Monroe, La. — Courtney Lee scored a game-high 23 points while Western Kentucky University allowed Louisiana-Monroe to shoot just 23.8 percent overall Thursday as the Hilltoppers earned a 71-44 Sun Belt Conference basketball victory over the Warhawks at Fant-Ewing Coliseum.
Lee, who hit 9-of-16 from the field including a season-best four threes, also paced the Toppers (11-5, 3-1 Sun Belt) with six rebounds while collecting two assists and two steals. No other player reached double digits in the scoring category for WKU, but it did shoot 50 percent in the opening half and made nine threes while limiting ULM (6-10, 0-4 SBC) to just 4-of-28 shooting from beyond the arc.
The Warhawks, who dropped their fourth straight contest, also committed 20 turnovers.
“It was important tonight to come out and play with the energy and defensive intensity that we played with,” Topper head coach Darrin Horn said. “We played with a tremendous amount of emotion, which is something we want to see this team do. We challenged our guys last Saturday that we needed everybody to do that — not a couple of guys, not three or four and not for parts of the game but the whole time.
“The thing I’m most pleased with is that I thought everybody who was focused on defending, rebounding and sharing the basketball for the full 40 minutes.”
The Hilltoppers entered play coming off a 65-61 loss at South Alabama last time out.
Raphelle Turner gave ULM its only lead when he scored the opening basket of the game 39 seconds after the tip, but by the time Jordan Payne connected on a three-pointer from the right corner with just over six minutes to go WKU was ahead 27-9. The Warhawks would end the first half shooting 13.3 percent from the field — those were the only two field goals they would hit — while turning the ball over on 14 occasions.
It was the third time in the last six outings that the Hilltoppers have held the opposition to fewer than 20 points prior to the intermission.
The Toppers, however, took advantage of ULM’s early performance, shooting 50 percent from the floor to build a 34-17 advantage at the break. Lee had 11 of those to lead the team, while Jeremy Evans added seven and A.J. Slaughter chipped in with five.
Lee scored six of the Hilltoppers’ first eight points, and when Steffphon Pettigrew hit in the paint it was a 10-3 edge with 14:22 left. That field goal started a 14-0 run that Evans closed with a three-pointer from the left corner that pushed the WKU advantage to 22-3 at the midway point of the period.
Mike Walker’s slam dunk on a follow of a missed shot made the score 27-6 with just under seven minutes to go, WKU’s largest lead of the half that Orlando Mendez-Valdez equalled when he answered Payne’s trey with a three-pointer from the top of the key 19 seconds later.
The Warhawks had a chance to cut into the lead as they visited the foul line 18 times in the first 20 minutes, however they shot only 67 percent. WKU led by 21 a third time when Slaughter converted a layup off a pass from Lee to make the score 34-13, but the Toppers wouldn’t hit a field goal over the final two minutes and 13 seconds either.
ULM cut its deficit to 15 twice in the first seven-and-a-half minutes after the break, the second time when the Warhawks answered a Lee layup and two free throws from Pettigrew with five in a row to make the score 45-30. But, after a WKU time-out, Lee sank a three from the corner in front of the bench, found Pettigrew for a basket in the paint, and then connected on another trey in just over a minute to push the edge to 53-30 with 10-and-a-half minutes left. Ty Rogers tipped in a missed shot 40 seconds later to cap a 10-0 spurt.
The lead grew to 27, 68-41, when Slaughter pulled up and hit a floater in the lane, while Adam Howard’s three at 1:37 gave WKU its biggest lead, 71-42.
Slaughter was 4-of-5 from the floor in finishing with nine points, while Evans added eight to go along with four rebounds, and Pettigrew and Boris Siakam both scored six. Tyrone Brazelton and Mendez-Valdez each handed out three assists to lead the team as the Toppers recorded 17 helpers on their 26 field goals — WKU shot 47.3 percent overall, including hitting 40.9 percent from beyond the arc.
The Hilltoppers also held a 36-28 edge on the boards, with D.J. Magley, Siakam and Walker grabbing four apiece.
Payne was the only Warhawk to reach double figures, posting 16 points and four rebounds off the bench. But, leading scorer Tony Hooper — who was averaging 15.9 points per outing after dropping 25 Monday at North Texas — shot 1-of-10 from the floor and missed all eight attempts from long distance to finish with just six points. He was also charged with four turnovers.
Lance Brasher added nine points, while Kenneth Averette collected four steals for ULM.
WKU returns home to take on Florida International Saturday at 7 p.m. (CST) at E.A. Diddle Arena. The Golden Panthers enter play 2-2 in the league after defeating Troy 74-49 at home Wednesday.