BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Steffphon Pettigrew's rebound and putback of a missed AJ Slaughter three-pointer from the top of the key with 2.8 seconds to play provided Western Kentucky University (11-6, 5-1 SBC) with a 63-61 win over Middle Tennessee (11-6, 5-1 SBC) in the 120th renewal of the storied rivalry on Thursday night. The victory vaults the Hilltoppers back atop the Sun Belt Conference East Division standings while keeping the Blue Raiders winless at E.A. Diddle Arena, during the regular season, since 1977 (16-straight games).
A perfect 7-0 this season at home, the Toppers improve to an impressive 59-5 in Sun Belt Conference home games since 2000 while ending the Blue Raiders longest winning streak in 18 years at seven games.
Both teams struggled offensively in the opening nine minutes of the game, going a combined 5-of-25 from the floor. However, a bucket by Sergio Kerusch at the 10:45 mark was part of a 9-0 spurt by WKU in which the Toppers closed the half 8-of-11 from the field. Kerusch finished with his third double double of the season scoring 15 points to go with 10 rebounds in 23 minutes of action.
Trailing 17-10 following an Orlando Mendez-Valdez trey, MTSU rattled off nine-straight to retake the lead 19-17 with under five minutes left in the half. The Hilltoppers closed the half strong, however, with a 15-5 run fueled by five points from Kerusch and a three-pointer at the buzzer from Anthony Sally to take its largest lead into the locker room at 32-24. Mendez-Valdez added 14 points while Sally dished out a team-high four assists.
In the second half, Slaughter drained a triple in the opening possession, but WKU went cold from the field again as the Blue Raiders scored 23 of the next 29 points to stake their largest lead of the game 47-41 following four-straight free throws from Demetrius Green and Kevin Kanaskie with 11:28 remaining. WKU's Matt Maresca was called for an intentional foul of Green and the Topper bench was assessed with a technical foul.
Rebounding the missed Desmond Yates jumper in the Blue Raiders bid for a six-point possession, the Toppers responded with an emotion-filled 11-0 run with no small part coming from the 5,142 fans in attendance. Ironically, it was Pettigrew scoring his first points of the night that ignited the run and Kerusch capped it with a lay-up at 7:58 to take a 52-47 lead.
Pettigrew scored all eight of his points in the final 12 minutes of the game. Slaughter led WKU with 16 points.
Yates' 14 paced Middle Tennessee, but the preseason SBC Player of the Year was just 5-of-16 from the field. Kanaskie and Nigel Johnson chipped in 11 each while Green finished with 10 points.
In the final 6:14, MTSU cut the margin to a single point on four different occasions, but could never regain the lead. Calvin O'Neil tied the contest with 40.2 seconds to play, setting up the game winner by Pettigrew.
WKU continues its three-game homestand on Saturday, January 17 when the Hilltoppers host New Orleans at Diddle Arena at 7:00 PM.
• WKU improves to 151-46 (.766) all-time in Sun Belt Conference games played at Diddle Arena
• WKU improves to 59-5 (.922) in Sun Belt Conference games played at Diddle Arena since 2000
• WKU improves to 260-112 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 257-151 all-time
• WKU improves to 492-131 (.790) all-time in 46 seasons at Diddle Arena
• WKU improves to 7-0 at home this season, and 10-5 in televised games
• With 5,142 in attendance, WKU upped its Sun Belt Conference leading average attendance to 4,443
• Tonight's game featured four of the top eight guards in the Sun Belt Conference as measured by assist-to-turnover ratio
• WKU entered the game second in the Sun Belt Conference in three-point field goal percentage (and 20th in the nation) at .395
• Tonight marked the 120th meeting all-time between long-time rivals Middle Tennessee and WKU; the Toppers have faced only Eastern Kentucky (154 meetings) and Murray State (146 meetings) more times
• WKU entered the game ranked 73rd in the latest RPI ratings; Middle Tennessee was 150th
• WKU has started 5-1 in Sun Belt Conference play for the fourth-straight season
• With two assists on the night, senior Orlando Mendez-Valdez tied current NBA star Courtney Lee (2005-08) for ninth on the school's all-time assists list with 281
• AJ Slaughter recorded double figures in points for the 13th time in 15 games played this season
• WKU has had three or more players in double figures in 13 of 17 games this season
• Sergio Kerusch posted his first double double in seven games and his third of the season
• Orlando Mendez-Valdez recorded his ninth double figure scoring performance
• Junior Anthony Sally has dished out at least three assists in his last five games
• WKU improves to 9-0 when holding teams under 70 points this season and wins for the ninth-straight time when leading at the half (9-1)
• WKU improves to 90-30 all-time against Middle Tennessee having won the last six
WKU Head Coach Ken McDonald
On the end of the game:
"We wanted to use as much clock as possible and set a quick screen. I told A.J. to miss the shot and for Steffphon to strategically run around the back side and get the rebound and put it back in, just to get a couple of extra seconds off the clock. No, but we wanted to be aggressive. We had 12 seconds on the shot clock and I wanted to make sure that we used a little bit of it. The play was designed to take off about five or six seconds. We just really wanted to get a good shot and the biggest thing is that we just had to be aggressive. Steffphon didn’t have a great night because he was in foul trouble but that just shows how much heart the kid has to go in and be a man on that last play. At the end of the game we said that there was going to be 10 men on the floor and that the best five men were going to win the basketball game. There is no better way to win a basketball game then when one of your guys goes in and tough out a rebound. It was a great play."
On the last shot:
“I think the defense has a tendency to watch for the last shot because it is the end of the game. We created a little bit of a numbers situation with A.J. because their post had to hold up a little bit and that allowed Steffphon to slide in. On that particular play I think he was pretty confident that our guard was going to shoot it. We had was good focus. Obviously, it was a hard fought game. We didn’t play really well tonight and Middle Tennessee was a big reason for that. They defend really hard. I didn’t think Middle Tennessee would be rattled when they got down by eight and they stayed with their game plan. They kept defending and playing hard and got it to a one possession game.”
Junior guard AJ Slaughter (#4)
On the end of the game:
"I was supposed to come off a ball screen but we had 12 seconds on the shot clock and I didn’t want to come right off. I took a shot to get it down to around eight seconds left and was able to drive down the court and get a good look. Coach just told me to get the shot clock down and take a shot and Steffphon was able to get the rebound and put it in."
On the win:
“It just shows people that we are here and that no matter who we play we are going to come out and play hard. We are at the top of the conference right now and we just want to show everybody that when they step on the floor to play Western Kentucky University, especially at home, that they better bring their A game.”
Sophomore forward Steffphon Pettigrew (#30)
On the end of the game:
"Every player has a bad shooting night, but you just have to go out and make the shots that count. Coach said that whoever shoots it just make sure you hit the boards hard and get a good shot. That is what I did."
Senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez (#20)
On the win:
“ I just kind of felt from the beginning that our backs were toward the wall. I don’t believe that there were many people that believe in what we are doing this year, especially with the way that Middle Tennessee has been playing. Hats off to my teammates. We all stuck together when it counted and it showed out there on the court.”
On the flow of the game:
“There were times when I felt we could have got stops and put them behind, but they just kept coming and making baskets. We talked before the game that this game was going to come down to toughness and who wants it more and rebounding and it’s mind boggling that it turned out to be a game that came down to a last second rebound.”