Bowling Green, Ky. — Western Kentucky University rallied from an 11-point halftime deficit to take a one-point lead with less than seven minutes to go Thursday, but South Alabama went ahead on a DeAndre Coleman layup with just under three minutes left and held off the Hilltoppers to pick up a 69-64 Sun Belt Conference basketball victory at E.A. Diddle Arena.
Courtney Lee — who led all players with 18 points — scored four straight in a 35-second stretch, putting the Toppers up 58-57 at 6:52 with a short jumper. After Domonic Tilford responded to put the Jaguars back in front 16 seconds later, neither team would score until Tyrone Brazelton gave WKU its last lead with a driving layup at 3:16.
Coleman responded on the other end, and Demetric Bennett and Tilford combined to make 7-of-8 free throws in the final 66 seconds to help USA (22-5, 14-2 Sun Belt) move a half-game ahead of the Hilltoppers (21-6, 13-2 SBC) in the East Division standings. The Jags swept the regular-season series, having also defeated WKU by four in Mobile in January, as they ended the Toppers’ 11-game win streak.
WKU will play its final home game of the regular season Saturday at 7 p.m. (CST) when Louisiana-Monroe visits Diddle Arena. Five seniors will be recognized prior to tip-off.
“We knew that this game would come down to the final couple of possessions. You have to credit South Alabama for making a few more plays than we did,” said Topper head coach Darrin Horn. “We had 20 more shots than they did, they just did not go down for us tonight.”
The Hilltoppers got back into the contest with an 8-2 spurt in the first two minutes after the break, with Lee scoring five on a layup and a three-pointer to make the score 43-38. While Ronald Douglas and Coleman both connected on baskets, USA would never lead by more than six points over the final 14-plus minutes following an A.J. Slaughter layup.
After cutting their deficit to four twice, Orlando Mendez-Valdez and Boris Siakam scored 30 seconds apart to make it a one-possession game, 52-50, midway through the half.
Siakam, who finished with six points and a season-best 12 rebounds, also converted a layup as part of a 6-0 run that gave the Toppers their first lead since they were up 14-13 with 12-and-a-half minutes left in the first half.
Brazelton was the only other Hilltopper in double figures, finishing with 11 points, four assists and three steals, and Lee was credited with eight boards and three assists.
But, WKU shot 33.8 percent from the floor and made 5-of-22 shots from three-point range in the contest.
Bennett paced the Jags with 16 points, and although he was 2-of-12 from the floor he finished 11-of-12 at the foul line. He also collected six rebounds and four assists. Tilford scored 12, Brandon Davis chipped in with 11 points and 11 rebounds, and Coleman added 10 points off the bench.
USA overcame a season-high 19 turnovers by shooting 10 points higher than the Hilltoppers from the field and outrebounding WKU, 44-39.
Actually, Davis had a double-double in the first half with 10 points and 10 boards, while Bennett scored nine points and Tilford added eight to help the Jaguars build a 41-30 lead at the break. USA grabbed 10 more rebounds than the Toppers in the opening 20 minutes, shot 50 percent and went 12-of-14 at the foul line to overcome nine turnovers.
Midway through the period Lee drew the Hilltoppers within one, 18-17, with a three-pointer, but the Jags answered with six straight points for a seven-point advantage at the under-eight minute time-out. WKU hung around as Ty Rogers and Mendez-Valdez cut the WKU deficit to four with baskets immediately after the break, and Jeremy Evans and Lee also made it a four-point contest inside of five minutes to go in the half.
But, after Mike Walker found Evans for a dunk with just over four minutes remaining, USA closed the half on an 8-2 spurt to take a double-digit lead into the locker room. Bennett went 4-of-4 at the free-throw line in the last two-plus minutes, while Tilford added a baseline jumper with 41 seconds to go.
Rogers connected on 3-of-5 from three-point range in the opening period — he would finish the contest with nine points and three rebounds — including scoring WKU’s first basket while giving it an 8-5 lead with another trey at 17:15. After Davis completed a three-point play, Brazelton and Siakam had back-to-back breakaway baskets to put the Hilltoppers ahead 14-13 with 12-and-a-half minutes remaining, forcing USA to call a time-out.
It was the fifth time in the last seven meetings between the two teams that the final margin of victory was five points or less. USA has claimed four of the last five match-ups, and it ended WKU’s five-game series win streak in Bowling Green with the performance.