MIAMI, Fla. — For the first time this season, Western Kentucky University (9-6, 3-1 SBC) failed to rebound from a loss with an impressive win. Florida International (6-11, 1-3 SBC) built a 14-point second half lead with less than six minutes to play and held on for an 81-79 victory at US Century Bank Arena. The loss knocks the Toppers from the ranks of the undefeated in Sun Belt Conference play.
WKU made more shots from the field, shooting 50.8 percent, and from the three-point line (11-of-21 for 52.4 percent), but were 8-of-14 at the stripe compared to 15-of-18 for FIU. The loss snaps the Hilltoppers' eight-game conference road winning streak and is the first loss to FIU since 2005 (although that win was later vacated by FIU due to NCAA sanctions).
After a tightly contested first half that witnessed 14 lead changes, WKU scored the opening points of the final frame to pull within 36-35, but Michael Dominguez caught fire, draining three-straight three-pointers in a 9-1 run to build a 45-36 cushion with 15:34 remaining. Dominguez finished a perfect 6-of-6 from downtown for 20 points. The Panthers got 16 of freshman Freddy Asprilla's career-best 21 points in the opening stanza.
FIU extended the spread to 54-41 with 12:16 remaining on a Alex Galindo trey, but sophomore Steffphon Pettigrew almost single-handedly kept the Hilltoppers in the game. Nailing a three with 10:51 left, cutting the lead back to single digits at 57-48, Pettigrew scored 23 of WKU's last 31 points over the previous 17 minutes. He finished 9-of-16 from the field for a career-high 28 points.
Nikola Gacesa converted a second-chance opportunity for the Panthers with 5:28 remaining to increase the margin to 74-60. It would be the last field goal of the game by FIU. On the ensuing trip down the floor, AJ Slaughter ignited a furious WKU comeback with a three-pointer at 4:56, the start of a 12-0 run in just 2:20. Another Pettigrew trey trimmed the deficit to 74-72 with 3:08 on the clock. Slaughter had 15 points to go with a team-high seven rebounds and six assists. Orlando Mendez-Valdez added 14 points and six assists.
WKU had three chances inside the final two minutes to tie or take the lead, but could not convert with two missed shots and one turnover. FIU converted 6-of-6 free throws inside the final 35 ticks to seal the upset victory.
Galindo, in just his third game back from injury, connected on only 5-of-15 shots from the field, but went 3-of-8 from long range for 15 points and four rebounds in 33 minutes.
WKU will conclude its season-long three-game, seven-day road swing on Saturday, January 10 at Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton, Fla. at 6:00 PM CST.
• WKU had its eight-game Sun Belt Conference road winning streak snapped
• WKU lost for just the third time in 23 meetings with FIU (2005 loss was vacated due to NCAA sanctions on FIU), snapping six-game winning streak against FIU
• WKU lost back-to-back games for the first time this season
• WKU is denied its first 4-0 start in SBC play since 2005-06
• WKU entered the game leading the Sun Belt Conference and ranked 27th in Division I in three-point field goal percentage at .388
• Senior Orlando Mendez-Valdez has 275 career assists, now just two behind Kevin Dildy (1979-82) for 10th all-time on the WKU career list
• WKU entered the game ranked 55th in the latest RPI ratings; FIU was 260th
• WKU falls to 258-112 all-time against the 12 current members of the Sun Belt Conference (includes postseason and match-ups when WKU was in the OVC); since joining the Sun Belt in 1982, the Toppers are 255-151 all-time
• WKU has shot better than 50.0 percent from the field in its last conference games
• WKU has made 10 or more three-pointers six times through 15 games, surpassing last year's five occurrences in 36 games
• With one block against FIU, Jeremy Evans passed Darius Hall (1992-95) for fourth all-time in WKU history in career blocks with 126
• WKU has had three or more players in double figures in 11 of 15 games this season
• AJ Slaughter extended his career-best streak of double-figure scoring performances to seven
• Steffphon Pettigrew scored a career-high 28 points
WKU Head Coach Ken McDonald
On letting FIU gain early confidence on the offensive end:
"This was a different confidence (than in Monday's loss at Mississippi State) I thought we guarded shooters, but gave up offensive rebounds. We didn't have five guys in the paint and we're small, so we have to have five red uniforms inside the paint to rebound and I think early, FIU got a lot of the hustle balls, the 50-50 balls, and that hurt us and that set a tone for them and they built off it. Second half, I thought we came out with good intensity in the first six or eight minutes, but then we lost focus and let some of their shooters get away. Those are the runs that you have to absorb and we just ran out of time. Good effort in spots, but not enough overall."
On Pettigrew's career-high performance:
"Pet [Steffphon Pettigrew] was great in the second half, terrific in the second half. We need more guys to step up and have that toughness."
On missed technical free throws:
"We had plenty of opportunities to win the basketball game, but what upsets me is that we allowed FIU confidence early and we didn't work the game plan, we didn't stay with the game plan long enough. I didn't think we were very good on offense in the first half at all, we didn't move the ball. We just have to keep getting better, and we can't get away from the fact that we have to play hard to win basketball games."