BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Western Kentucky University (13-6, 7-1 SBC) watched a 14-point second-half lead shrink to three with just under three minutes to play before hanging on for the 73-68 win over Louisiana-Lafayette (6-12, 3-4 SBC) on Thursday evening at E.A. Diddle Arena. In remaining perfect at home this season, the Hilltoppers extend the league's longest active home winning streak to 10 games.
Remaining in sole possession of first-place in the Sun Belt East Division standings, and tied with UALR for the best overall conference mark, WKU is now 61-5 against Sun Belt foes at Diddle Arena since 2000.
After the Ragin' Cajuns opened to a 6-5 lead 2:36 into the contest, the Toppers exploded on a 15-2 run to balloon the spread to 20-8 with 13:04 on the clock. Doing it from the inside and out, Orlando Mendez-Valdez drilled a three-pointer, AJ Slaughter added two triples, and Jeremy Evans had a pair of dunks as WKU seemed set to run away with the game.
But Louisiana-Lafayette countered with eight-straight and 13 of the next 16 to pull within a bucket at 23-21 on Chris Gradnigo's three-pointer with 7:36 remaining. The preseason All-Sun Belt selection scored nine of his 15 first-half points during the crucial first-half span. Gradnigo finished with a season-high 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting.
WKU was able to stretch the spread to seven at the half, and then used a 9-2 spurt to open the final stanza in building their largest lead of the game 48-34 with 17:45 to play.
Still in control by a dozen, 61-53, with 7:07 left after a three-point play from Jeremy Evans, the Ragin' Cajuns made their final push. Travis Bureau, ULL's leading scorer at 15.4 ppg, was held scoreless until his three from the top of the key with 6:54 on the clock ignited a 10-3 run as Ryan McCoy's steal of a Hilltopper inbounds pass at midcourt translated into fastbreak dunk, making it a one possession game, 66-63, with 2:55 to play. Bureau finished with six points on the night.
However, after struggling from the free throw line all game, WKU converted when it counted, making 7-of-8 attempts inside the 1:53 to seal the win.
Slaughter led five Toppers in double figures with 17 points and five assists. Evans added 16 while Mendez-Valdez, Sergio Kerusch, and Steffphon Pettigrew contributed 13, 11, and 10 respectively. As a team, WKU nearly shot 50 percent from the field again at home, finishing 25-of-52 for 48.1 percent.
Having concluded their three-game homestand at 3-0, WKU will play the first of two-straight away from the friendly confines beginning in Denver, Colo. on Saturday, January 24 at 8:00 PM CST. The Hilltoppers will be looking for the season-best fifth-straight win. The game will be carried on Fox Sports Rocky Mountain, but only Insight customers with cable channel 533 can see the game locally in Bowling Green.
• WKU improves to 23-12 all-time versus Louisiana-Lafayette, winning its fifth-straight in the series
• WKU's fourth-straight victory equals its longest streak of the season
• Louisiana-Lafayette's last victory in Diddle Arena came on January 17, 2000 (a 2004 win was vacated by the Ragin' Cajuns due to NCAA sanctions)
• WKU remains in sole possession of first place in the Sun Belt East Division standings, tied with UALR for the best record in the conference
• WKU has started 7-1 in Sun Belt Conference play for the third time in the last four seasons
• WKU improves to 153-46 (.769) all-time in Sun Belt Conference games played at Diddle Arena
• WKU improves to 61-5 (.924) in Sun Belt Conference games played at Diddle Arena since 2000
• WKU improves to 262-112 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 259-151 all-time
• WKU improves to 494-131 (.790) all-time in 46 seasons at Diddle Arena
• WKU improves to 9-0 at home this season, and 12-5 in televised games
• With 4,812 in attendance, WKU upped its Sun Belt Conference leading average attendance to 4,551
• WKU extends its home court winning streak to 10 games (longest current streak in the Sun Belt Conference); the Toppers have won 24 of their last 25 at Diddle Arena
• WKU has had three or more players in double figures in 15 of 19 games this season
• WKU improves to 11-0 when holding teams under 70 points this season
• Sergio Kerusch was named the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Week on Monday, becoming the Hilltoppers' third different player to receive the honor this season (it marks the first time in WKU's 26-year Sun Belt affiliation that the program has had three different players win the award in the same season)
• WKU entered the game ranked 61st in the latest RPI ratings; Louisiana-Lafayette is 266th
• Steffphon Pettigrew scored in double figures for the seventh time in the last eight games
• AJ Slaughter recorded double figures in points for the team-leading 15th time in 17 games played this season
• Orlando Mendez-Valdez recorded his fifth-straight double figure scoring performance (11th this season), his longest stretch this year
• Sergio Kerusch registered his fourth-straight game with double figures, longest streak of the season
• With five assists on the night, Mendez-Valdez (289) moved within 16 of Michael Fraliex (305) for eighth on the school's all-time career list
• Mendez-Valdez passed Roland Shelton (1987-90) for ninth on the career three-pointers list and into a tie with Filip Videnov (2000-03) for eighth with 150
WKU Head Coach Ken McDonald
Opening thoughts on the game:
"I thought we played a little tired. I was a little hard on the guys this week because I thought we needed to improve. I thought physically and mentally we needed to get better, especially when playing through fatigue and through stretches. I don’t think we had legs a lot during this game and I thought mentally we had a couple of lapses. We had them shooting 30 percent early. Otherwise, they went on a couple of runs and that confidence factor is a big one. We had 10 turnovers in the first half that led to 11 fast break points for Louisiana-Lafayette. You take those away, or some of those away, then you are going into halftime with a bigger lead and a much better feeling about things. That is part of the game. I didn’t think that we played great but we found a way to win and get it done.”
On working the team hard in practice this week:
“I don’t think you can stop trying to get better. There are things that we have to get better at. We aren’t anywhere near where we want to be come March. The times that you can work on things are in practice. We didn’t play great against New Orleans so we had a lot to work on. The biggest thing is competing when you are tired, having mental focus when you are tired, and executing when you are tired. We put our guys in those situations this week and we were probably a little fatigued during this game.”
On the team's mental toughness:
"The mental toughness part is so important. Nobody went harder than Orlando (Mendez-Valdez) during this stretch. He didn’t play particulary tired. You want the young guys to pick it up and understand that a lot of the game is mental. You want to see how your team is going to respond in different situations because in the game you respond in different ways during different situations. That is what it is all about at this point and the bottom line is that we got a win. It could have been easier but a lot of factors go into that and we will have to watch the tape and find out just what we did wrong and what we did right
Junior guard AJ Slaughter (#4)
On the slow start:
“We had bad turnovers tonight and our turnovers were leading to easy baskets for them; they were getting a lot of layups. The turnovers that we had changed the game. It gets frustrating but you just have to know that is the game of basketball. It is a game of runs and I’m just glad that we made a run at the end to win the game.”
On playing at Denver on Saturday:
“It’s going to be really tough. We just have to go out and play hard and get a win on the road. It’s not as much about X’s and O’s, but it is a mental thing.”
Senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez (#20)
On the win:
"I thought we played good during stretches, but I don’t think that we did overall. I think we did as well as we wanted to and a win is a win, especially in conference play and against a team like that. They have a lot of potential and they are a team that can get going. We just keep coming back and it was a good win.”