FIU win shows new signs of Topper maturity

Junior guard Jamal Crook hugs freshman forward Vinny Zollo after Zollo scored while being fouled during the second half of WKU’s game against Troy Saturday in Diddle Arena. WKU lost the game 67-65.

Cole Claybourn

There was a sequence in WKU’s game Saturday against Florida International that looked eerily similar to one just two nights before against Florida Atlantic. The Toppers were up by 15, their opponent made a run to cut the lead to single digits, and a timeout was called.

In a similar situation Thursday, FAU came back and dealt WKU a 67-66 defeat.

Freshman forward Vinny Zollo said Saturday’s game felt like “deja vu.” But WKU (7-15, 3-6 Sun Belt Conference) sustained its lead.

And even when FIU made another late run to make it a five-point game, the Toppers had just enough toughness to hang on for the 61-51 win on the road.

“This team — a month ago, we lose by 15, we lose by 12 in a run like that,” Zollo told WKU’s Big Red Radio Network following Saturday’s win. “When they throw that punch and Coach calls a timeout, that’s the time you regroup and you gain that ground back and you really go forward.

“We’re realizing that we need to be a team that can sustain our lead through toughness, not just rely on our shots going down. Down the stretch, you can’t rely on that. You’ve got to rely on your defense and how bad you want it.”

It’s no secret to those familiar with WKU’s 2011-2012 season that the team has blown several late-game leads.

But on this road trip, the Toppers were one successful possession against FAU away from picking up two much-needed road wins.

Whether Saturday’s 10-point win is an indication of things to come for the remainder of the season is yet to be seen, but Interim Head Coach Ray Harper said the team is heading in the right direction.

“I was proud of our guys for bouncing back after a tough loss on Thursday,” Harper said. “This was a team that beat us by 16 or 18 three or four weeks ago. For us to respond the way we did, I’m awfully proud of those guys.”

It was arguably WKU’s most dominating performance of the season.

After missing their first 15 shots of the game, the Toppers took an 8-5 lead mid-way through the first half off a 3-pointer from senior guard Jamal Crook and never trailed the rest of the way.

WKU also out-rebounded FIU by five, had more production from the bench and held the Panthers to just one three-pointer.

Defensively, the Toppers held the same team that blew them out at home a month ago to 30 fewer points than the last matchup.

“I thought defensively we were terrific, especially in the first half,” Harper said. “We got a little tired at the end and gave up some drives to the basket. I thought we relaxed a little bit. But the kids did a great job, and we’re just happy to get out of here with a victory.”

Zollo said it’s simply a product of the team maturing.

“The whole freshman thing — we don’t like to use that as an excuse. We’re not freshmen anymore,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of strong characters.

“Those characters kind of butt heads sometimes, but that’s OK. That’s part of the learning process for our team.”