BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — With his first career start, newcomer Sergio Kerusch made it count, pouring in 15 of his 20 points in the first-half as Western Kentucky University (2-2) notched an impressive 79-70 win over perennial top 25 power Southern Illinois (2-3) on Wednesday evening before nearly 4,000 fans at Diddle Arena. Sophomore Steffphon Pettigrew equalled Kerusch's team-high total of 20 points, a career-best, as the 2007 Kentucky Mr. Basketball did most of his damage after the break.
Both teams started sluggish, combining for just six points in the opening four minutes of play. But following a short-lived 4-2 lead for SIU, the Hilltoppers scored 10 of the game's next 12 points to grab a 12-6 advantage on a Kerusch jumper with 12:56 on the clock.
The Salukis, who have advanced to seven-straight postseason tournaments including the 2007 NCAA Sweet 16, tied the score four more times in the first-half, but never could regain the lead. Four-straight points from Carlton Fay knotted the game at 25-25 with 6:14 left in the half, but Kerusch ignited a 15-4 run, scoring six during the spurt, capped off by a three-point play from Pettigrew with 16 ticks remaining to balloon the lead to 40-29. Kevin Dillard drained a trey in the closing seconds to trim the deficit to single digits at the half.
Maintaining a comfortable 10-point cushion early in the second-half, Kerusch and junior guard Anthony Sally combined for an 8-0 run to extend the WKU lead to the largest of the game, 55-38, with 13:44 to play. Bryan Mullins answered with a three for SIU on the ensuing trip down the floor, ending a four-minute scoring drought, as the Salukis made their final move. Southern Illinois went on a 15-3 run, rattling off 10-straight to close within 58-53 with 9:02 left on the clock.
After an empty trip each way, Sally drove the lane for bucket with the shot clock winding down with 8:05 remaining to make it a 60-53 WKU spread. SIU twice got within six points in the final five minutes, but WKU made just enough free throws (8-of-13 in the final 4:28) down the stretch to seal the win.
Orlando Mendez-Valdez added 17 points and four assists for the Toppers while AJ Slaughter and Sally each chipped in 10 to give WKU five players in double figures.
Ryan Hare paced Southern Illinois with 16 off the bench on 4-of-6 from the floor and 6-of-6 at the stripe,
WKU finished with a decisive 26-6 margin in points off turnovers after committing just two second-half miscues.
WKU will now travel to Nashville, Tenn. to face #3 Louisville on Sunday, November 30 at 2:00 PM at the Sommet Center. This will mark the 72nd meeting between the intrastate rivals with the Toppers holding a 38-33 advantage in the series including wins in two of the last five meetings.