Hilltoppers Remain Perfect at Home, Sweep South Alabama for First Time Since 1999

By: Brad Fields, WKU Athletic Media Relations
By: Brad Fields, WKU Athletic Media Relations

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — In front of a packed house and a national television audience watching on ESPN2, Western Kentucky University (17-7, 11-2 SBC) committed a season-low five turnovers and got 24 points from senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez in dispatching South Alabama (13-11, 6-7 SBC) 67-59 in a key Sun Belt Conference showdown on Saturday afternoon at Diddle Arena. The Hilltoppers shot just 29.6 percent in the second half, but used stout defense to win their fourth game in eight days.

With the win, WKU remains unbeaten at home at 11-0, extends their conference-best home winning streak to 13-straight, and avenges their only home loss in the past 27 games. WKU is 63-5 in home conference games since 2000. More importantly, the Toppers remain in sole possession of first-place in the SBC East Division standings and are one-half game ahead of UALR for the best overall league mark.

The game did not begin like a career-night for Mendez-Valdez, but it sure finished that way as the San Antonio, Texas native drained 6-of-10 three-pointers for 24 points, one off his career high and representing his best single-game performance in his four seasons at Diddle Arena.

Just four seconds into the game, as Mendez Valdez and South Alabama's CJ Garner raced for control of the ball off the opening tip, Mendez-Valdez dove out of bounds near the end of the Jaguar bench and gashed his face on a chair, having to leave the game for nearly four minutes.

Upon his return, Mendez-Valdez who was already a little under the weather coming in, drained a three at the 15:33 mark to ignite an early 8-2 Hilltopper run.

South Alabama's leading scorer Domonic Tilford was averaging 17.7 points per game, but his only basket of the first half came at the 8:26 mark as USA tied the contest 16-16. The Toppers closed the final four minutes on a 10-4 run to stake a 33-26 advantage at the break.

The Jaguars opened the final stanza on a 13-3 run, stroking six of their first seven shots to grab their first lead of the game 39-36 with 15:29 to play on a fastbreak bucket by Tilford. He finished with 12 points on 5-of-15 from the field.

WKU came out cold, connecting on only one of their first 10 shots until Mendez-Valdez drilled a transition three off an Anthony Sally drive and dish to tie the game at 42-42 with 12:34 on the clock.

Down by three with under seven minutes left, the Hilltoppers scored seven of the next eight points to surge back in front 56-53 on a three-point play from AJ Slaughter with 5:14 remaining. The junior guard finished with 13, eight coming in the second half, as he extended his career-best double digit scoring streak to eight games.

Tilford hit his only two three-pointers of the game just 54 seconds apart as the Jaguars seesawed back in front 59-56. But again Mendez-Valdez had the answer with a triple on the ensuing trip down the floor and after an offensive foul on Tilford, Steffphon Pettigrew connected from long range to give WKU the lead for good with 1:35 to play. Sally converted four free throws in the final minute to close out the 67-59 victory.

Pettigrew finished with 13 while Sally chipped in four points, six rebounds, two assists, and three steals.

DeAndre Coleman scored a team-high 13 for South Alabama while Brandon Davis and Ronald Douglas each chipped in 12.

WKU now has an off date this week before hitting the road Saturday, February 14 for a showdown at Troy at 7:30 PM.

NOTES:

• WKU improves to 24-30 all-time against South Alabama with the first season sweep of the Jaguars since 1999

• WKU wins its fourth-straight, equaling a season best, and eight of its last nine

• WKU improves to 155-46 (.771) all-time in Sun Belt Conference games played at Diddle Arena

• WKU improves to 63-5 (.926) in Sun Belt Conference games played at Diddle Arena since 2000

• WKU improves to 11-0 at home this season, and 16-6 in televised games

• WKU extends its home court winning streak to 12 games (longest current streak in the Sun Belt Conference); the Toppers have won 26 of their last 27 at Diddle Arena

• WKU improves to 496-131 (.791) all-time in 46 seasons at Diddle Arena

• WKU remains in sole possession of first place in the Sun Belt East Division standings, one-half game ahead of UALR for the best record in the conference

• With 6,613 in attendance, WKU upped its Sun Belt Conference leading average attendance to 4,842

• Tonight marked the 11th time this season WKU has played in front of a crowd of more than 5,000 (five coming at Diddle Arena)

• WKU improves to 265-113 (.701) 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 262-152 (.633) all-time

• WKU improves to 15-0 when holding teams under 70 points this season

• WKU entered the game ranked 67th in the latest RPI ratings; South Alabama is 184th

• WKU has had three or more players in double figures in 20 of 24 games this season

• WKU notches its 1,598th win, just two wins shy of becoming the 14th program in Division I history to reach 1,600 victories

• WKU is now just three victories shy of 20-wins with a minimum of six games left to play; WKU has had four-straight 20-win campaigns and a fifth would be the longest such stretch in over 65 years

• The four-wins-in-eight-days is the best such stretch since 2005 for WKU

• Orlando Mendez-Valdez is now just 94 points shy of becoming the 42nd player in WKU history to reach 1,000 points

• Mendez-Valdez scored 24 points, one shy of his career-high, and the most he has ever scored at Diddle Arena

• Anthony Sally has 16 assists to just six turnovers in his last five games

• AJ Slaughter reached double figures for the eighth-straight game, his career long streak; he has reached double figures in 20 of 22 games played this season

QUOTES:

WKU Head Coach Ken McDonald

On WKU's overall performance:

"I don’t think in this stretch we played great at any time. I thought our defense was pretty good. The first rotation of our defense was really good. It was the next help-side of our defense that we have to work on. We were trying to help on each other off of drives and post feeds, but then sometimes the guards weren’t coming down and getting in the mix. Defensively I thought they had a good game-plan and stuck with it. They were trying to impose their will on us on the inside, which is going to happen to us. We have to be there for each other to slow that down. We did an excellent job on [Domonic] Tilford. AJ Slaughter was as focused defensively as he’s been all year. He made it tough for him to catch the ball. He made him drive. Our other players were helping on drives. At the end of the game he was really focused. At a time when they needed a shot or a three, AJ was all over him. I’m really excited that he stepped up to that challenge."

On the team's rebounding success:

"It was big. It was really big. We were getting hurt inside. There’s no doubt about what their game-plan was. A lot of that was off of penetration or us rotating over. I thought their post players were putting shots up and we weren’t coming down and helping. They are big. They played a big lineup and at times that hurt us. We’re going to have to adjust. That was obviously their game-plan. At the end of the game I thought we scrapped a lot better. If you look at the last six minutes or four minutes, compared to the first 32 or 34 minutes, there is a big difference. The guards came down. You saw Anthony Sally come down and get a big rebound. Orlando [Mendez-Valdez] was in there. AJ was in there. In the first half our guards were rebounding better than the post. We have to that. Especially against a team like South Alabama that has good interior play."

On being invlolved in so many close games:

"I think it is really helpful. I swear to you I would rather be in games like this, rather than 20-point blowouts. You’re going to be in a close game, whether tournament play or on the road against [UALR], Troy, or any of these teams we go play we’re going to be in close games. When it comes Sun Belt Tournament time, we are going to be in close games. Any stretch like this, I think it really helps your team mature. I can see in our faces, where before maybe we were panicking a little bit. Now, it’s no so end of the world feeling. It’s a great thing. I would like it a little more stretched out. Maybe ten points. I can feel a little more comfortable. It is what is. You go on the road, it’s going to be tough. Even with an incredible crowd tonight, it was a battle. We knew it would be."

On getting wins despite not playing great during the four-game stretch:

"I’m very excited. I would much rather learn a lesson with a victory. We can look at tape and obviously make adjustments. Tonight in the second half with the post players I was pretty that we were getting our tail kicked so hard. I started rotating guys in. I didn’t care at that point what happened. We had to establish that somebody was going to play hard in the post and fight a little bit. Very happy though that we are pulling games off. We are learning how to do that and grind out a game and still come out on top. We are not panicking. We’re making free-throws when we need to. Anthony Sally stepped up and made some big free-throws. So all of those things go into a team at the end of the year that hopefully is going full steam ahead."

Junior guard AJ Slaughter (#4)

On improved free throw shooting:

"We spent time on it in practice and talk about it a lot. When it gets down to crunch time you’ve got to knock your free throws down if you want to win games. I think we did a good job of knocking them down tonight."

On feelings now that rough stretch of four-games-in-eight-days is over:

"It feels real good. It’s the last game of a long stretch. Guys are tired and it shows a lot about our team that we can fight through times like this and come away with a win. When it gets down to the Sun Belt tournament time, there should be no problem with us getting three wins in a row."

On feelings now that rough stretch of four-games-in-eight-days is over"

"It feels real good. It’s the last game of a long stretch. Guys are tired and it shows a lot about our team that we can fight through times like this and come away with a win. When it gets down to the Sun Belt tournament time, there should be no problem with us getting three wins in a row."

Senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez (#20)

On the important of this game:

"We just wanted to set the tone from the jump ball. Unfortunately I ran into a chair. It was going to be on national TV, so of course everyone wants to come out and perform in the national spotlight. I knew everyone was going to bring energy, but the main thing is that I think we stayed focused and when it came down to it we locked down. ion. It held us through the game."

On the South Alabama run in the second half:

"They made an adjustment. We knew what they were doing, but there were just mental breakdowns. There’s no pointing fingers."

On success shooting the three tonight:

"I just came out and shot the ball. My girlfriend told me I had missed 15 out of my last 18 three pointers. I just kept on shooting. I figured one of these games I’m going to catch fire."

On the importance of winning these last four games:

"It’s a big deal. All of our games so far have come down to the last two minutes. I think that’s a really good positive because all of those games we have come out on top. It shows a lot about our team. A couple of weeks ago, it could have been a disaster. We’ve matured a lot as a team and games like that get us ready for the tournament."

South Alabama Head Coach Ronnie Arrow

Opening thoughts on the game:

"I thought it was a very physical game. Fans got to see across the country what I think the Sun Belt is all about. I think both teams made a good showing. They just got some things done at the end that we didn’t get done."

On WKU's rebounding late in the game:

"They kicked our tails on the boards. They had 18 offensive rebounds. We would have probably won by eight to 12 points on just first possessions. Unfortunately they got second possessions. They kicked our tails on second possessions in this game. A lot of those possessions it was the guards coming in to get the rebound, not the post men."


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