BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Sergio Kerusch scored six-straight points in a key 13-2 second half run as Western Kentucky University (12-6, 6-1 SBC) rallied past New Orleans (8-10, 3-4 SBC) 70-60 in Sun Belt Conference action on Saturday night at Diddle Arena. The Hilltoppers posted just their fourth victory when trailing at the half over the past two seasons. Coupled with Middle Tennessee's loss at UALR, WKU resumes sole possession of first-place in the SBC East Division standings.
The Toppers entered the contest as the 20th-ranked three-point shooting team in Division I, but struggled to a 1-of-8 performance in the opening 12 minutes, falling behind 16-9 on Destin Damachoua's fast-break bucket, capping a 12-2 Privateer run.
After WKU crept back within three at 18-15 with 6:11 to play, New Orleans used another 10-2 spurt to again create separation as Justin Archie's back-to-back fastbreak lay-ups pushed the bulge to 28-17 with 3:07 left in the half. Still trailing by 10 with under 40 seconds on the clock, AJ Slaughter knocked down a triple from the top of the key and following a turnover at midcourt by Darrian McKinstry with 18.3 ticks showing, Slaughter drilled another trey with three seconds on the clock to set the halftime score at 30-26.
Slaughter finished with a team-high 19 points to go with four of the team's 11 assists.
The Toppers appeared to shake off the offensive struggles of the opening stanza, scoring seven of the first nine points in the second half, grabbing their first advantage since 14:07 of the first half. But the Privateers hung around, leading for the final time with 13:01 to play following a steal and bucket from preseason All-SBC selection Kyndall Dykes made it 42-41. Dykes finished with a game-high 21 on 8-of-13 shooting.
The decisive 13-2 WKU run followed as Anthony Sally knocked down a three with 12:29 to play and Kerusch finished it off at the 7:56 mark for the Toppers largest lead of the game 54-44. UNO got within a possession on 1-of-2 free throws from TJ Worley at 4:33, but WKU scored nine of the game's final 11 points to seal the victory.
Kerusch finished with his second-straight double double, scoring 18 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. Steffphon Pettigrew chipped in 15 points while Orlando Mendez-Valdez added all 13 of his points in the second half.
After 10 first half turnovers, the Hilltoppers committed only four second half miscues while holding the Privateers without a made three-pointer in seven attempts. Ironically, the last opponent WKU held without a three was New Orleans in their January 23 match-up in the Big Easy last season.
Now 60-5 at Diddle Arena versus Sun Belt Conference foes since 2000, WKU will put its perfect 8-0 mark at the friendly confines on the line Thursday, January 22 when the Toppers close out their three-game homestand with Louisiana-Lafayette at 7:00 PM.
• WKU improves to 21-8 all-time versus New Orleans, winning its seventh-straight in the series
• New Orleans last victory in Diddle Arena came on January 25, 1997
• With Middle Tennessee's loss at UALR tonight, WKU takes over sole possession of first place in the Sun Belt East Division
• WKU won when trailing at the half for just the fourth time in the past two seasons (2-5 this year); WKU is now 27-49 when trailing at the half since 2002-03
• WKU held its opponent without a three-pointer for the first time since accomplishing the feat last year in their match-up against New Orleans
• WKU has started 6-1 in Sun Belt Conference play for the fourth-straight season
• WKU improves to 152-46 (.768) all-time in Sun Belt Conference games played at Diddle Arena
• WKU improves to 60-5 (.923) in Sun Belt Conference games played at Diddle Arena since 2000
• WKU improves to 261-112 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 258-151 all-time
• WKU improves to 493-131 (.790) all-time in 46 seasons at Diddle Arena
• WKU improves to 8-0 at home this season, and 11-5 in televised games
• With 5,042 in attendance, WKU upped its Sun Belt Conference leading average attendance to 4,518
• Tonight marks the eighth time this season WKU has played before a crowd of more than 5,000 (three of which coming at Diddle Arena)
• WKU has had three or more players in double figures in 14 of 18 games this season
• WKU improves to 10-0 when holding teams under 70 points this season
• WKU entered the game ranked 60th in the latest RPI ratings; New Orleans is 253rd
• Sergio Kerusch posted his second-straight double double and his fourth of the season
• Steffphon Pettigrew scored in double figures for the sixth time in the last seven games
• AJ Slaughter recorded double figures in points for the team-leading 14th time in 16 games played this season
• Orlando Mendez-Valdez recorded his fourth-straight double figure scoring performance (10th this season), his longest stretch this year
• With three assists on the night, Mendez-Valdez moved former Hilltopper and current NBA star Courtney Lee (2005-08) for ninth on the school's all-time assists list with 284
• Mendez-Valdez moved past Darnell Mee (1991-93) for 10th all-time in career three-pointers with 147, two behind Roland Shelton (1987-90)
WKU Head Coach Ken McDonald
On whether or not fatigue was a factor:
"It’s hard to say until we watch tape but I think fatigue was a factor. I said that I didn’t think it would be a factor before the game but it is one of those deals where you have to feel it out. Anytime Orlando is turning down open shots there is something going on. I thought the focus was good. We talked a lot about not having a let down (after Thursday night's Middle Tennessee win). The players talked about how we don’t lose at home and we don’t want to have a let down right now. I think they wanted to come out and play hard but we just didn’t start great. We finished the half with maybe three or four minutes of hard basketball and kind of got it back under control, which was very important. It was important not to go in down by 10 or 12 at halftime. I thought we got it under control a little bit and then we showed some pride and heart during the second half.”
On what turned the game around:
“The thought of losing. We have pride and our upperclassmen led the way. Sergio (Kerusch) came off the bench and had really good energy. Those are the types of things that we needed. Anthony Sally continues to get better. He’s still turning the ball over too much but he is doing some good things. Sometimes you just have to sit back and say okay we’ve got to go and we’ve got to rally the troops and get this done. That is what happened tonight.”
WKU Head Coach Ken McDonald
On the team learning a lesson tonight:
“I told the team after the game that you want to learn your lessons winning. We definitely learned a lesson tonight. We didn’t quite have it. After the game you can’t quite point to exactly what it was. All I know is that we played hard at the end of the first half so why couldn’t we play hard at the beginning of the first half? We also played hard during a good chunk of the second half so why couldn’t we do that during the first half? But, it’s a mental thing. Mental toughness is something that you have to constantly get better with and you can always be a little stronger at. I’m glad we learned that lesson and I’m glad that it was on the winning side.”
Junior guard AJ Slaughter (#4)
On the slow start:
“I think this game showed a lot about our team, especially coming off a big win over Middle Tennessee. We came out and played hard which was hard to do. We were a little fatigued but we found a way to win at the end of the game.”
On WKU's performance:
"I just think that we weren’t playing with any energy and that led to them getting some baskets. We weren’t playing hard enough or with the energy that we need to be as good as we can be. This game was a learning experience and I’m just glad that we came out with the win."
Sophomore forward Sergio Kerusch (#1)
On the quick turnaround after the Middle Tennessee game Thursday night:
“This game was hard for us because Thursday’s game that we won went down to the wire. After the Middle Tennessee game we had practice and then had to come back and get ready for another game. We came out flat but we picked it up after halftime. We came out as a team and exploded with energy and did what we had to do to be competitive.”
New Orleans Head Coach Joe Pasternack
Thoughts on the game:
“I really thought that we defended well in the second half. We were getting stops and getting transition baskets and we were scoring off of our defense. That was probably the difference for us in the first 15 or 16 minutes.”
On AJ Slaughter's two three-pointers in the closing minute of the first half:
“Those were two big shots. But, I really thought that our defense overall was really, really good. That is what fueled us on offense. Coming back in the second half, we had to really regain the momentum and I thought that in that first five minutes WKU did a very good job of taking control.”