Bowling Green, Ky. — Courtney Lee scored 22 points in 25 minutes Saturday, while a 15-0 run to open the second half helped Western Kentucky University pull away for a 78-64 Sun Belt Conference victory over Denver at E.A Diddle Arena.
The Hilltoppers (18-5, 10-1 Sun Belt) earned their eighth straight win as they closed out a three-game homestand. They will next take on North Texas Thursday at 7 p.m. (CST) in Denton.
WKU connected on its first six shots after the break, limiting the Pioneers (9-12, 5-5 SBC) to just one field-goal attempt during that five-minute stretch — they would finish the period shooting 68 percent in recording a 60.4 percent mark for the contest. Lee had a jumper and a dunk during the run, D.J. Magley added four points and Ty Rogers connected on a trey before Orlando Mendez-Valdez found Jeremy Evans open for an alley-oop dunk to give the Hilltoppers a 54-28 advantage with 15 minutes to go.
“It was another game where we had a tremendous defensive effort as a whole, especially at the beginning of the second half where we created a lead that really ended the game,” Topper head coach Darrin Horn said. “Our defensive intensity and activity have been good, that’s the thing that continues to drive us.”
With the victory, Horn became the second-fastest coach on the Hill to reach 100 wins after accomplishing the feat in his 146th game.
WKU led for or was tied for all but eight seconds of the game, building a six-point edge on two occasions before breaking the game open with nine straight points from Lee late in the opening half. After Rob Lewis’ three cut WKU’s advantage in half, making the score 27-24 with five-and-a-half minutes left, Lee answered with a trey and two jumpers around a layup over the next three minutes to put the Toppers up by double digits.
He also hit two free throws four seconds before the end of the period, giving him 15 points in the half as the Hilltoppers took a 39-28 lead into the locker room. Twenty-four of those points came in the paint — WKU shot 53.6 percent over the first 20 minutes, which included making 14-of-21 shots inside the three-point arc.
Lee would lead the Toppers in scoring for the ninth straight outing after making 8-of-10 attempts from the field and 5-of-7 foul shots. He added four assists, three steals and a pair of rebounds as well.
Evans was 5-of-5 from the floor to add 10 points, with Magley contributing eight. Tyrone Brazelton collected six points, five assists with just one turnover and a season-high-tying three steals, and Mike Walker recorded four points and six boards, leading the Hilltoppers in the latter category.
Lewis paced the Pioneers with career highs of 19 points and nine rebounds, leading four players in double digits. Adam Tanner scored 14, Joe Jackson added 12 and Nate Rohnert posted 10 to go along with five rebounds and four assists. Xander McNally recorded five assists and three steals, although he was charged with six of DU’s season-high 23 turnovers.
The Pioneers shot just 41 percent from the field, but they were 26-of-31 (83.9%) at the free-throw line.
The Toppers led by six at the first media time-out, with four of their starters contributing to the advantage, but Jackson cut the Pioneer deficit to two with a basket and two free throws. McNally tied the contest 10-10 with just over 14 minutes to go, however WKU regained a six-point lead with Walker chipping in with two tip-ins of missed shots.
It was still a five-point edge, 21-16, with less than 11 minutes left after Brazelton completed a three-point play, but DU would get back into the contest by holding the Hilltoppers without a point over a three-and-a-half minute stretch.
The Pioneers would fall behind though, missing six of their last seven shots of the half in finishing with a 39.1-percent field-goal percentage before the break.
Lee completed a three-point play with just over 11 minutes left to give WKU its largest lead of the night, 65-37. The Hilltoppers still led by 20 with two minutes remaining before DU closed the contest on a 7-1.
The Toppers finished with 54 points in the paint, their highest total of the year, and they turned Denver’s turnovers into 29 points as well.