Miami — Western Kentucky University overcame a season-high 22 turnovers Wednesday with a defensive effort that saw the Hilltoppers force 21 miscues while limiting Florida International to just 34 percent shooting in a 69-54 Sun Belt Conference victory over the Golden Panthers at Pharmed Arena.
The Toppers (23-6, 15-2 Sun Belt) also outrebounded FIU (9-18, 6-11 SBC) 36-28 while scoring 27 points off turnovers.
They shot 51 percent from the field as well, the second straight contest that the Hilltoppers have connected on better than half of their shots.
“We got out of this game exactly what we wanted coming in — a win and a great defensive effort,” said WKU head coach Darrin Horn. “We were not as sharp as we’d like to be offensively, but if we guard like that we will be OK. We wanted to get back to defending, rebounding and playing with the kind of defensive energy that has made us good.
“We got a double-digit win on the road with 22 turnovers. This was the kind of win that we need to be able to get at this time of year.”
After Nikola Gacesa tied the game 9-9 with 13-and-a-half minutes to go in the first half, the Hilltoppers would hold FIU to just two field goals over the next 11 minutes while putting together a 12-2 run in extending to a 13-point advantage. Boris Siakam and Courtney Lee scored 17 seconds apart to push the edge to 15-9, although Erick Nsangou responded with a three-point play to cut the Golden Panther deficit in half with 8:40 to go. After A.J. Slaughter connected on back-to back shots in a 30-second span, WKU broke open the game with threes from Orlando Mendez-Valdez and Lee — the second gave the Toppers a 27-14 lead with just under five minutes left.
Both teams were charged with a double-digit turnover total before the break, but the Hilltoppers built their advantage by holding FIU to just 30-percent shooting from the floor in the opening period.
Ty Rogers added another three — WKU was 5-of-11 from beyond the arc in the first half — to make the score 30-16, and after the Golden Panthers cut into that lead with five unanswered points Mendez-Valdez sank a three from the left wing and Lee recorded a steal that led to a layup in the final 42 seconds as the Toppers were ahead 35-22 at the intermission.
The Hilltoppers would hit six of their final seven attempts of the half to shoot 52 percent over the opening 20 minutes.
Siakam converted a layup with just under 14 minutes remaining to extend the lead to 51-33, WKU’s largest advantage of the night, before the Golden Panthers mounted a rally.
Gacesa’s tip-in with just over nine minutes to go capped a 7-1 FIU spurt that made the score 56-46, while a layup by Badara Ndiaye two minutes later cut the deficit to nine, 59-49.
Siakam recorded three points and Tyrone Brazelton followed with a layup to push the Topper advantage back to 63-49 with just under six minutes left as WKU would not allow another field goal the rest of the way.
Slaughter paced the Hilltoppers in scoring for the first time this year with 12 points on 6-of-12 shooting, and he also grabbed four rebounds. D.J. Magley collected 10 points and two steals in only 11 minutes, hitting 4-of-4 from the field, with Rogers and Siakam chipping in with nine points apiece. Jeremy Evans added seven points and a game-best eight rebounds, while Lee was credited with seven points, six boards and a team-high four assists.
Brazelton collected three steals, and Evans and Mendez-Valdez both had two as the Toppers finished with 10 as a team.
Gacesa led all players with 13 points, while Alex Galindo posted 10 points, five rebounds and four assists for the Golden Panthers. Nsangou finished with nine points and five boards, and Russell Hicks recorded seven and five, respectively.
WKU closes out the regular season with a 6 p.m. (CST) contest at Florida Atlantic Saturday.