WKU falls 72-61 to St. Joseph’s in season-opener

Freshman guard Derrick Gordon makes one of his 16 free throws Friday in WKU’s 72-61 loss to St. Joseph’s. Gordon scored a game-high 25 points and pulled down eight rebounds in his Topper debut.

Cole Claybourn

Freshman guard Derrick Gordon said WKU came out “soft” in its season-opener against St. Joseph’s.

What the Hawks did during that early part of the game proved to be too much for WKU to overcome as the Toppers fell 72-61 in front of a crowd of 3,813 at Diddle Arena.

“They threw the first punch,” said Gordon, who finished with a game-high 25 points and added eight rebounds. “The way we responded was not good. Now we just have to go back tomorrow in practice and get ready for Monday.”

The Toppers (0-1) indeed got off to a slow start offensively and allowed St. Joseph’s to jump out to an early 11-6 lead.

The Hawks stretched the lead to 24-10 before WKU switched out its man-to-man zone to a 2-3 zone.

The changed proved effective as WKU then closed out the half on a 12-7 run and went into halftime down 31-24.

McDonald said the plan coming out of halftime was to settle down.

Gordon came out and hit four free throws early for WKU, and senior guard Kahlil McDonald added a 3-pointer. WKU then cut the lead to 37-36 with 15:04 left to play after a Kevin Kaspar 3-pointer. 

“We started playing a little more team basketball,” McDonald said. “The hustle plays on the defensive side I thought were there, and we just wanted to continue on that. We had 20 minutes and we put ourselves in position to win a basketball game. Then it was time to take it in the next 20 minutes.”

But as soon as WKU pulled within one, St. Joseph’s rattled off a 9-3 run to go back up by 10.

McDonald said the Hawks started getting into the lane too easily and fed the ball to post players, allowing them to regain a double-digit lead.

“They started getting fouled and started getting aggressive, either posting it or driving it,” he said. “The help-side defense wasn’t there on those drives and we didn’t front the post like we needed to.”

With about five minutes left to play, WKU made one last surge. Junior guard Caden Dickerson took a charge, and St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli was called for a technical foul after arguing about the call.

Dickerson made both free throws, and Gordon scored after two WKU shots rimmed out to cut the lead to 56-51 with 4:45 left to play.

It was Dickerson’s only two points of the game after he went 0 of 8 from the field — 0 of 5 from three-point range, including an airball.

That type of play out of Dickerson isn’t anything McDonald said he expects to see regularly. Dickerson just came back this week after nursing a shoulder injury, causing him to miss WKU’s exhibition game against Xavier (La.) last Saturday.

“He’s had one practice under his belt,” McDonald said. “I want to encourage him to keep coming at it and keep working. He’ll be back, so that’s something you can’t predict as well.”

WKU then had a chance to cut the lead to five, but Dickerson missed a 3-pointer before Langston Galloway hit one on the other end to give St. Joseph’s a 62-51 lead with 2:45 left.

The Toppers shot 26.5 percent from the field (18 of 68) and 21.1 percent from three-point range.

Freshman forward Vinny Zollo said its hard for a team to put itself in a position to win shooting the way WKU did Friday.

“The emphasis before the game is always getting up tons of shots,” he said. “You know you can shoot and shoot and shoot some nights and it’s just not going to go down for you.

“We got some good looks on the perimeter — the best looks that we wanted. We got into the paint at will and it just wouldn’t go down for us.”

WKU was playing without four players — junior center Teeng Akol, sophomore forward Stephon Drane, freshman forward George Fant and freshman guard T.J. Price.

McDonald announced prior to Friday’s game that Akol was suspended for the team’s first three games due to a violation of team rules, while Fant and Price sat out because of issues with their paperwork regarding their summer employment.

Drane remained out due to injury.

With four players out — two who were starters in Saturday’s exhibition — McDonald said he’ll take that into consideration when assessing Friday’s game, saying that those players might have made up an 11-point difference.

“I think it makes a big difference,” he said. “The start of your season — it’s a tough way to start. It was kind of thrown on us yesterday, last night. We had to adjust. We didn’t get a victory, but I thought some guys tried to step up tonight. That’s basically what you can do.”

Gordon’s 25 points were the highest for a freshman since Steffphon Pettigrew had 11 points against Kennesaw State in 2007. Gordon was just 4 of 16 from the field, but made 16 of 18 free throws and three assists in 28 minutes

Gordon was the only WKU player to reach double figures.

St. Joseph’s, on the other hand, had five scorers in double figures, led by Galloway’s 19.

The Hawks also blocked nine shots, five from center C.J. Aiken.

WKU now has a quick turnaround with its second game of the season coming on Monday. McDonald said the plan is to watch film and have a short practice on Saturday before Monday’s game.

“Our morning session will focus a lot on what we need to improve on, and there’s a lot to improve on,” he said. “We’ll come back in the afternoon and talk about our next opponent. This team is focused in on a lot of things…now we’ve got to make a jump in the next game.”