Second half struggles doom WKU at South Alabama

Lucas Aulbach

WKU had a 10-point lead with 13 minutes to go against South Alabama on Saturday but couldn’t hold on.

The Jaguars finished the game on an 18-5 run and sent the Toppers to a 66-61 loss in front of 4,126 fans at the Mitchell Center in Mobile, Ala.

South Alabama (15-10, 7-7 Sun Belt Conference) outscored WKU (9-18, 5-9) 30-16 to finish the game, after the Toppers led 45-35 with 13 minutes to go.

Rebounding turned out to be the key, as the Jaguars out-rebounded the Toppers 48-35, grabbing 18 offensive rebounds.

Head Coach Ray Harper told WKU’s Big Red Raadio after the game that reounding was the reason his team will head back to Bowling Green with a loss.

“If we rebound the basketball, we’re leaving here with a win,” Harper said. “But tonight we did not do that.”

Rebounding has been one of South Alabama’s strengths this season. The Jaguars average 15.2 offensive rebounds per game this season, and on Saturday the Toppers didn’t have an answer on the boards.

Freshman guard Derrick Gordon led WKU with nine rebounds but no other Topper was able to pull in more than five.

Gordon also led the Toppers with 16 points, including scoring the first six for the team. Junior guard Jamal Crook and junior center Teeng Akol added 14 and 11 points, respectively, but the three were about the only bright spots for WKU on offense.

Gordon’s 16 points helped him move forward in the WKU record books. The freshman passed Johnny Britt for sixth most points in a freshman season in school history.

The Toppers led for most of the second half after coming into halftime with a 26-24 lead but the Jaguars were able to whittle away at the lead until taking the lead for good with 2:56 to go.

WKU had a chance to tie the game in the final minute after a three-pointer from Crook brought the Toppers to within one. But Akol missed the front half of a one-and-one and South Alabama got the rebound with 33 seconds left to help seal the game.

Harper said the loss was another case of the Toppers not being able to close the game.

“This is a tough place to play against a good basketball team and for most of the 40 minutes we were the better basketball team,” he said. “Unfortunately down the stretch, once again, we weren’t able to do it.”

It was the last regular season road match for the Toppers before the upcoming Sun Belt Conference Tournament in Hot Springs, Ark. WKU finishes the year 3-8 on opponents’ home floors.

WKU will stay in fourth place in the Sun Belt East Division after Florida International lost to Arkansas State 77-67 on Saturday.

The Toppers will try to rebound from tonight’s loss back in Diddle on Thursday against Arkansas State. Harper said that game will be a good chance for WKU to get back on track.

“It’ll be a good test for us and our young guys, I’m sure they’ll bounce back and be resilient just like they have all season long,” he said.