Bowling Green, Ky. — Courtney Lee recorded a game-high 19 points and three steals Saturday to help lead Western Kentucky University to a 76-60 Sun Belt Conference basketball victory over Florida International at E.A. Diddle Arena.
While he was the only Hilltopper in double figures scoring, Tyrone Brazelton and Steffphon Pettigrew chipped in with nine points each while D.J. Magley and Orlando Mendez-Valdez both scored eight as WKU (12-5, 4-1 Sun Belt) picked up its fourth win in the last five outings.
After starting off six for their first 19 from the field, the Toppers connected at a 57.1 percent rate in the second half and finished the game shooting 50.9 percent overall.
Nikola Gacesa paced the Golden Panthers (5-10, 2-3 SBC) with 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting, while Alex Galindo added 10. FIU committed 23 turnovers — the Hilltoppers turned those into 27 points on the other end of the floor — and they shot 43.8 percent from the field and just 55.2 at the foul line.
It’s the second straight contest that WKU’s opponent has turned the ball over at least 20 times, while the Toppers have allowed the opposition to shoot 35.7 percent overall over the last four outings.
“It definitely built on what we did Thursday night [allowing Louisiana-Monroe to shoot 23.8 percent in a 71-44 win], but other than what happened at Troy our defense continues to do good things for us,” Hilltopper head coach Darrin Horn said. “We gave up a few easy baskets early, but we did that by design because we wanted to speed up the tempo of the game and force some turnovers. Offensively we did a good job of playing inside out, our bigs continue to make progress.”
WKU used a 9-0 run in the final two minutes of the opening half to take a double-digit lead into the locker room, keyed by Lee and Mike Walker. The former started the run with a baseline dunk, and after Mendez-Valdez connected on a three-pointer with an assist from the latter Lee was fouled and sank both free throws. Walker ended the spurt with a layup off an assist from Jeremy Evans that made the score 35-22 with 27 seconds remaining.
Nick Taylor stopped the spurt when he hit a three from the left wing just before the buzzer.
It was still a 10-point margin when Lee sank a three to spark a streak of nine straight points for the Hilltoppers to put the game out of reach. Ty Rogers hit a layup one minute later, Magley — who also collected five rebounds and three assists — added a dunk off a pass from Brazelton while Pettigrew closed it out when Lee’s steal led to his layup that put WKU up 48-29 with 14:44 to go.
Rogers had seven points on 3-of-4 shooting, and Boris Siakam also scored seven to go along with six rebounds. Evans shared game-high honors with seven boards as the Hilltoppers outrebounded FIU, 34-32 — it’s the fourth time since opening league play at Troy Dec. 29 that they have won the battle of the boards.
The lead would grow to as many as 22 points, first when Pettigrew converted a layup with just over 12 minutes left to make the score 54-32. Lee’s layup at the midway point of the second half, which put the Toppers up 60-38, marked the last time they led by that many.
Gacesa converted 6-of-7 attempts from the floor, but the rest of the Golden Panthers shot just 34.1 percent. While Galindo also reached double figures and matched Lee for game-high honors with three steals, he was charged with a season-high seven turnovers. FIU’s leading scorer coming into the game, Russell Hicks, finished with nine points and seven rebounds, but he was held scoreless the first 25 minutes.
Both teams struggled for most of the first half, as WKU shot just 31 percent while FIU turned the ball over 10 times as it was 15-15 12 minutes into the contest. Gacesa gave the Golden Panthers the last of their three leads on the night when he made 1-of-2 free-throw attempts at 7:18, and following a three from the left corner by Brazelton with 6:41 to go he tied the contest 18-18 when he answered with a jumper on FIU’s next possession.
Gacesa was 4-of-5 from the floor in scoring nine points the opening 20 minutes. Brazelton and Lee each scored eight points to pace the Toppers in the first period, and Mendez-Valdez added six with a pair of treys.
The Hilltoppers will next face Florida Atlantic, which picked up its first league win of the year Saturday after defeating Troy 93-88, on Wednesday in the second of two consecutive home games. Tip-off at Diddle Arena is scheduled for 7 p.m. (CST).