Lafayette, La. — While the Western Kentucky University basketball team has been guided by its six-member senior class most of the 2007-08 season, it was a true freshman who kept the Hilltoppers in their road contest with his first-half performance at Louisiana-Lafayette Saturday until one of the aforementioned group took over after the break.
Courtney Lee scored all but two of his game-high 23 points in the second half Saturday, helping the Toppers earn a 69-66 Sun Belt Conference victory over the Ragin’ Cajuns at the Cajundome. But it was Steffphon Pettigrew who put Lee in position to lead WKU to the win, as he scored 12 points and grabbed five rebounds in the opening 20 minutes as the Hilltoppers overcame a 33.3 percent shooting effort to head into the locker room tied 27-27.
Pettigrew would finish with a career-best 14 points and six boards as WKU improved to 14-5, 6-1 in the Sun Belt, with its season-high fourth straight win. Tyrone Brazelton added nine points, a career-high eight rebounds and five assists — which led all players — while A.J. Slaughter came off the bench to add nine points, which included making both free throws with 42 seconds to go to seal the victory.
The Hilltoppers outrebounded ULL (8-10, 4-3 SBC) 34-25 while committing just 11 turnovers.
The game was tied 41-41 with 12-and-a-half minutes left when Lee helped give the Toppers a five-point lead. After hitting two free throws, Lee blocked a Chris Gradnigo jump shot then nailed a three-pointer on the other end of the floor six seconds later to make the score 46-41 with 11 minutes to go. He would score five more points over the next two-plus minutes, but it was Slaughter’s three from the right wing at 8:20 that pushed the advantage to 57-49.
WKU was 3-of-17 from three-point range before Lee’s three, but then made three straight from beyond the arc as Orlando Mendez-Valdez also sank a shot from long distance in building the eight-point lead.
That edge would grow to 12 points with four-and-a-half minutes remaining when Boris Siakam converted a layup, but the Ragin’ Cajuns would rally behind Travis Bureau.
Abray Milson converted a layup and two foul shots around a Bureau layup to cut the ULL deficit to five, 65-60, with two-and-a-half minutes to go. Tyren Johnson’s three from the left corner made it a two-point game, and after Lee made both foul shots Bureau hit from beyond the arc with 1:14 remaining to make the score 67-66.
After Slaughter’s two free throws, Willie Lago missed a layup and Randell Daigle’s three-point attempt as time expired was off as WKU held on for the win.
Bureau collected all of his 11 points in the second half, matching David Dees for team-high honors. Dees also recorded five rebounds, while Courtney Wallace came off the bench to supply nine points and eight boards.
The Ragin’ Cajuns led most of the first half by limiting the Toppers to 33 percent shooting before the break. In fact, after Brazelton evened the score 5-5 just before the contest’s first media time-out, ULL would be in front until the final two minutes beginning with a Wallace layup with over 15 minutes remaining. A Gradnigo basket with less than 12 minutes to go gave the Cajuns a six-point advantage at 14-8, their largest of the night that would be matched when Maurice Barksdale made the score 23-17 with four-and-a-half minutes left with his only field goal of the game, a three from the right wing.
It was Pettigrew who would keep the Toppers in the contest, scoring the team’s last five points down the stretch en route to posting 12 in the first 20 minutes. After drawing WKU within one point with a layup following an offensive rebound, he gave the Hilltoppers their first lead, 26-25, with just under two minutes to go when he made both free throws. Pettigrew then split a pair of foul shots to send the game into the locker room tied at the break, 27-27.
Pettigrew entered the game averaging better than four points and three rebounds per contest.
ULL shot 46.8 percent for the game, although the Hilltoppers connected at a 51.9-percent rate over the final 20 minutes.
WKU will return to action Wednesday when it visits New Orleans for a 7 p.m. (CST) tip. It will be the team’s third trip to Louisiana in a two-week span.