MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Behind the strength of a 23-4 run, Western
Kentucky University (21-8, 15-3 SBC) build itself largest half-time
lead of the year and held off a furious Middle Tennessee (17-13, 10-8
SBC) second half surge to hand the Blue Raiders a 68-49 defeat at the
Murphy Center on senior night. The win gives the Hilltoppers its seven-
straight over its rival and the 2008-09 Sun Belt Conference Regular
Season Championship, the school's 41st conference crown (regular season and tournament titles).
In addition to clinching the top seed in next week's Sun Belt
Tournament, WKU earns an automatic bid into the National Invitational
Tournament (NIT) if the Toppers do not receive a berth in the NCAA
Tournament. It will represent the 34th national postseason appearance
in the storied 90-year history of WKU basketball.
After the two teams traded some early buckets, WKU used an 11-2 run to open up the first space of the game at 13-5 on a steal and lay-up from AJ Slaughter at the 14:38 mark. Desmond Yates brought the Blue Raiders within four at 13-9, but WKU proceeded to rattle off 11-straight points in a 16-2 run that blew the game open 29-11 with 5:29 left in the half on a Orlando Mendez-Valdez jumper. Sergio Kerusch, the reigning SBC Player of the Week, scored nine of his 13 points during the run, finishing with 14 rebounds as well to give him his third double double in the past four games.
Calvin O'Neil finally halted a Middle Tennessee scoring drought of more
than seven minutes, but WKU increased its margin to 39-17 at the break
thanks in part to 7-of-25 shooting (28.0 percent) by the Blue Raiders
on their home court.
Mendez-Valdez finished with a game-high 19 points, leaving him just six
shy of 1,000 for his WKU career, while Slaughter's 13 points extended
his career-best double figure scoring streak to 13 games.
The second half started with a complete role reversal as it was MTSU
who could not miss, holding WKU without a field goal for the opening
8:24 of the final frame. The Blue Raiders sank their first eight shots
of the half, closing within four points with 12:15 to play on Eric
Allen's steal and lay-up, capping a 21-5 run.
Still leading by four with under 10 to play, Slaughter knocked down a
big three from the far wing as the shot clock expired to push the
margin to 49-42. That started what would be the final separation of
the game, a 10-2 spurt that was punctuated by an Anthony Sally
deflection to Mendez-Valdez, who kicked it back to a streaking Sally
for a dunk, making it 56-44 with 6:21 left.
Middle Tennessee scored just three points in the final 6:00 as the
Hilltoppers won going away 68-49. WKU trailed for just 2:51 in the
contest, the only time they have been behind in the last 120 minutes of
Montarrio Haddock led the Blue Raiders off the bench with 13 points
while O'Neil and Kevin Kansaskie added 10 each. Yates, the Sun Belt
Preseason Player of the Year, finished with six points and five
rebounds in 16 minutes of action before fouling out.
WKU will await the winner of the Sun Belt Tournament opening round game between the eight and nine seeds, Louisiana-Lafayette and FIU. WKU's quarterfinal game versus the eight-nine winner will take place on
Sunday, March 8 at 12:30 PM in Hot Springs, Ark.