MOBILE, Ala. — Western Kentucky University (6-3, 1-0 SBC) got a combined 41 points from its starting backcourt of AJ Slaughter and Orlando Mendez-Valdez to knock off South Alabama (6-5, 0-1 SBC) 69-66 at the Mitchell Center on Thursday night in both team's Sun Belt Conference openers. The win snaps a three-game losing streak to the Jaguars and represents just the Toppers second victory in eight regular season trips to Mobile since 1999.
Slaughter scored 16 of his team-high 21 points in the second-half, finishing 8-of-19 from the field to go with four assists and three of the team's eight steals. Mendez-Valdez canned 4-of-8 three-point attempts for his second 20-point performance in the last three games.
The homestanding Jags were hot early, drilling six of their first eight shots from the field to break open a 16-7 spread on Domonic Tilford's fastbreak three-pointer with 14:58 remaining. The Sun Belt Preseason All-Conference guard finished with a career-best 30 points on 7-of-11 from long range.
On the ensuing possession, however, sophomore DJ Magley went to the basket and drew a foul. After converting both free throws, Sergio Kerusch stole the inbounds pass from Tilford, laid it in, and was fouled, finishing off the three-point play. WKU scored five points in five seconds in the turning point of the first-half.
Trailing 25-20 with 8:40 left in the half, Slaughter connected from downtown followed by back-to-back treys from Mendez-Valdez as the Toppers claimed a 29-25 advantage with 7:18 left, their first lead since it was 2-0.
South Alabama scored 12 of the first 17 in the opening five minutes of the second half to surge back in front 46-40 on Daniel Hayles fastbreak bucket. WKU continued to battle, however, knotting the game up at 58-58 on two free throws by Mendez-Valdez with just under eight minutes to play.
Jeremy Evans' stick-back of a Steffphon Pettigrew miss represented his only points of the second-half, but they put the Toppers in front for good with 7:07 to play. Evans scored 10 of his 12 in the first half, finishing 6-of-7 from the field.
Slaughter scored the next seven points of the game, the last coming on a tip-in with 2:01 left as WKU grabbed its largest lead of the game 67-61.
Tilford hit a three from the top of the key with 19 ticks left to make it interesting at 67-66, but Slaughter made both free throws and a pair of contested Tilford attempts were off the mark at the buzzer.
Kerusch posted his second career double double with 10 points and 16 rebounds. WKU shot 48.2 percent for the game including 52.0 percent in the second half.
Concluding its season-long three-game road swing at 2-1, WKU returns home to host Alabama A&M on Sunday, December 21 at 4:00 PM at Diddle Arena. The Toppers have won nine-straight home non-conference clashes and 16 of their last 17.