Bowling Green, Ky. — Courtney Lee and Tony Hooper battled to a standoff Saturday, scoring 26 points each to share game-high honors, so it was up to Western Kentucky University’s bench — which outscored Louisiana-Monroe’s reserves by 20 points — to help lift the Hilltoppers to an 86-75 Sun Belt Conference basketball victory over the Warhawks at E.A. Diddle Arena.
D.J. Magley scored 10 points in 12 minutes, A.J. Slaughter added eight and Orlando Mendez-Valdez chipped in with seven and five assists off the bench as WKU improved to 22-6 overall and 14-2 in the SBC with its 12th win in the last 13 contests.
The Toppers are tied with South Alabama for first place in the league’s East Division standings heading into the final week of the regular season.
Raphelle Turner collected 12 points and five rebounds for ULM (10-18, 4-12 SBC), but only one other reserve scored for the Warhawks.
Both teams shot better than 50 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three-point range, but WKU was able to force 21 turnovers.
WKU closed the opening half on an 11-0 run, forcing six Warhawk turnovers over the final three minutes — they would finish with 15 in the period — while Lee supplied five of his team-best 12 points in the last 95 seconds. He gave the Toppers their first lead when he hit a pair of free throws, then followed a Slaughter three-pointer with a trey from the corner 54 seconds before the break.
Lee scored five more points in the first two-and-a-half minutes after the break to extend the edge to 10, 46-36. ULM withstood the charge, closing the gap to one point on three different occasions, but after Hooper’s layup with just over 11 minutes remaining made the score 56-55, Lee responded with back-to-back baskets as WKU held more than a one-possession lead for all but eight seconds over the final 10 minutes.
Actually, the Hilltoppers took control of the game with a 10-2 run that left WKU up 70-59 with five-and-a-half minutes to go after Tyrone Brazelton fed Matt Maresca for a dunk. Boris Siakam completed a three-point play — he would end up 5-of-5 at the free-throw line — while Mendez-Valdez sank a three from the top of the key after the Toppers grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds.
The Warhawks missed four shots and turned the ball over twice during that four-minute span.
Lee, one of five seniors playing their final regular-season home game at Diddle Arena, finished 8-of-17 from the floor — making 3-of-6 attempts from three-point range — and 7-of-8 at the foul line. He added five rebounds and a steal. Ty Rogers posted eight points, three rebounds and three assists, Brazelton led the team with six rebounds to go along with six points while Siakam scored seven.
Siakam and Adam Howard made their first starts of the season on Senior Night, with Howard in the starting five for the first time in his four-year career.
Magley was 4-of-5 from the floor, Rogers was 4-of-6 and Brazelton 3-of-6 as the Toppers connected on 51.7 percent overall.
The Warhawks shot 51 percent as Hooper was 7-of-15 and Turner made 4-of-5 attempts, but Jordan Payne — making his first start in over a month — finished 3-of-9 from the field, scoring nine points but turning the ball over a WKU opponent-high eight times.
ULM would shoot 61.1 percent in the first half, hitting their first five attempts from the field in building an early six-point advantage. After the Toppers came back to force a 15-15 tie with 13-and-a-half minutes remaining on a pair of Magley free throws, the teams traded three-point baskets before the Warhawks scored seven unanswered points — when Turner hit a layup with nine-and-a-half minutes to go, he gave them their largest lead, 25-17.
Rogers stole a pass at midcourt and went in for a layup two minutes later to cut the WKU deficit to one, but Hooper — who led the Warhawks with eight first-half points before picking up his third foul — sank two free throws to push the ULM advantage to 30-24 at 6:22. Jeremy Evans ended a 6-0 Topper spurt with a layup when Maresca found him cutting down the lane to tie the contest just under five minutes before the break.
Maresca saw 12 minutes of action, the most he’s played since playing 18 minutes in his season-debut at Alaska Anchorage Nov. 23, finishing with four rebounds, an assist and a block in addition to his dunk.
With the win, the Hilltoppers moved to 8-0 against SBC West Division opponents. They’ll conclude the regular-season with a pair of games in Florida next week, beginning with a 6:30 p.m. (CST) tip-off Wednesday at Florida International.