BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — In his final home game, senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez scored a game-high 20 points to help send the four Western Kentucky University (20-8, 14-3 SBC) seniors out in style as the Hilltoppers ran past Florida Atlantic (6-24, 2-15 SBC) 87-67 on Thursday night at Diddle Arena. In posting a Sun Belt Conference record fifth-straight 20-win season, WKU won at least a share of the program's sixth East Division title in the nine years of divisional play.
WKU capped off a perfect 13-0 season at home, their eighth undefeated home season in the 46-year history of Diddle Arena. The Toppers are also an impressive 65-5 at home against Sun Belt foes since 2000.
Following an emotional pregame ceremony that honored Mendez-Valdez, Japeth Aguilar, Matt Maresca, and Mike Walker for their combined 323 games of service to the Red and White, the Toppers started hot, knocking down 11 of their first 19 shots from the field to bolt to a 28-9 spread with 10:42 left in the opening half. AJ Slaughter drilled a triple to cap 16-straight points by the Hilltoppers, as WKU connected on six of their first nine three-point attempts including three by Slaughter.
An old-fashioned three-point play by Steffphon Pettigrew with 2:23 on the clock pushed the bulge to 44-23 before Florida Atlantic closed the half on a 7-0 spurt to trim the deficit to 44-30 at the break.
Pettigrew entered the game shooting 59.1 percent from the free throw line this year, but converted a career-best 10-of-10 to finish with 18 points. Slaughter added 19 points in 29 minutes, his 12th-straight double-figure scoring game.
Scoring the first four points of the second half, Shavar Richardson's free throw with 19:03 on the clock extended the run to 11-straight by the Owls, pulling Florida Atlantic within 44-34.
But once again, behind the energy of over 6,400 fans in attendance, WKU poured in 13-straight points to finish off a 19-5 run and deliver the knockout blow as back-to-back layups from DJ Magley made it 63-39 with 14:56 left. FAU never threatened again.
For the second-straight game, WKU never trailed. Reigning Sun Belt Player of the Week, Sergio Kerusch, just missed his third consecutive double double with nine points and a game-high 11 rebounds. Maresca pulled down a career-best 10 boards to go with four points and two assists while Aguilar also had a career-night, tossing in eight points on 3-of-4 shooting. Walker played a season-best 18 points, scoring two and grabbing a rebound.
Paul Graham III, the Sun Belt's leading scoring at 18.5 ppg, finished with 20 on 6-of-17 shooting. Richardson added 15 while Carlos Monroe chipped in 14 points and 11 rebounds.
WKU will now travel to Murfreesboro, Tenn. on Saturday, February 28 for a 7:00 PM showdown with longtime rival Middle Tennessee. A win over the Blue Raiders will give the Hilltoppers the number one seed in the Sun Belt Tournament, an automatic bid into the NIT if they do not make the NCAA Tournament, and the program's 41st conference championship, the third most all-time in NCAA history.
• With the win, WKU remains one-full game in front of Troy for first-place in the Sun Belt East Division standings and clinches at least a share of the East Division championship while remaining in the driver's seat for the top seed in the SBC Tournament with one game to play (it is the program's sixth SBC East Division title in the nine seasons the league has had divisional play)
• Tonight was "Senior Night" for WKU seniors Japeth Aguilar, Matt Maresca, Orlando Mendez-Valdez, and Mike Walker who have combined to play in 323 games
• WKU finished its home season a perfect 13-0, just the eighth undefeated home season in the 46-year history of E.A. Diddle Arena (2008-09, 2002-03, 2001-02, 1994-95, 1970-71, 1969-70, 1968-69, 1965-66)
• With the win, WKU improves to 20-8 on the season, the fifth-consecutive 20-win campaign for the Hilltoppers, the longest streak in SBC history and the most straight 20-win seasons for WKU in over 65 years
• Head coach Ken McDonald became just the fourth WKU coach to win 20 games in his first season at the helm (WKU has had 13 head coaches all-time)
• WKU improves to 19-7 in televised games
• WKU improves to 6-1 all-time against Florida Atlantic, sweeping the season series and winning five-straight in the series
• WKU improves to 157-46 (.773) all-time in Sun Belt Conference games played at Diddle Arena
• WKU improves to 65-5 (.929) in Sun Belt Conference games played at Diddle Arena since 2000
• WKU extends its home court winning streak to 14 games (longest current streak in the Sun Belt Conference); the Toppers have won 28 of their last 29 at Diddle Arena
• WKU improves to 498-131 (.792) all-time in 46 seasons at Diddle Arena
• With 6,413 in attendance, WKU upped its Sun Belt Conference leading average attendance to 5138; it is the fifth-straight year that the Hilltoppers have led the league in attendance
• Tonight marked the 14th time this season WKU has played in front of a crowd of more than 5,000 (seven coming at Diddle Arena)
• WKU improves to 268-114 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 265-153 all-time
• WKU entered the game ranked 58th in the latest RPI ratings (the second-highest rated team in the state of Kentucky, behind only Louisville at #12, whom the Toppers beat 68-54 on November 30); Florida Atlantic is 310th
• Jeremy Evans had his streak of consecutive games with a block halted at 24
• AJ Slaughter reached double figures for the 12th-straight game, his career long streak; he has reached double figures in 24 of 26 games played this season
• WKU has had three or more players in double figures in 24 of 28 games this season
• Orlando Mendez-Valdez is now just 25 points shy of becoming the 42nd player in WKU history to reach 1,000 points
• WKU is 18-0 when holding its opponents under 70 points
• With six assists, Orlando Mendez-Valdez has 320 for his career, ranking sixth all-time at WKU; next up is the senior's former coach, Darrin Horn (1992-95) with 352
• Going 1-of-1 at the line tonight, AJ Slaughter is 40-of-45 over the past 11 games for an impressive 88.9 percent
• With 20 points, Steffphon Pettigrew improved his career-best string of consecutive games in double figures to six
• In his final game at Diddle Arena, Matt Maresca grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds
• Also in his final game, Japeth Aguilar scored a career-high eight points
WKU Head Coach Ken McDonald
On starting the seniors:
"I was really excited for them. I thought they had earned the right to start...I think they took advantage of it."
On not losing at home this season:
"Finished what you started. One of your goals was to not lose at home. ‘Our motto is we don’t lose at home’."
WKU senior post Matt Maresca (#41)
On what it meant to start the game:
"It was awesome. Indescribable. It was great feeling getting to run out there one more time."
On what its been like playing at WKU:
"I’ve enjoyed every second of it. It’s hard to really be depressed when you’ve enjoyed it that much."
WKU junior guard AJ Slaughter (#4)
On starting the four seniors:
"We only had one guard and three bigs. He [Coach McDonald] put the starting lineup back up with the seniors and was like ‘we’re going to play zone.’ It was kind of funny."
WKU senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez (#20)
On starting the seniors:
"It wasn’t the normal starting lineup, but I knew we had each other’s back. The main thing was to keep our composure. Play forward. Play hard on defense."
On how he played in his final game at Diddle Arena:
"The only thing I could have asked for was that dunk. But there are still more games. I’m gonna get my dunk.”