Seniors lead WKU in win over Louisiana-Lafayette

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Senior forward Juan Pattillo jumps for a shot over Louisiana Lafayette’s La’Ryan Gary during the first half of Sunday’s quarterfinal game. Pattillo and WKU’s other two seniors — Steffphon Pettigrew and Sergio Kerusch — combined for 65 points against ULL.

Jonathan Lintner

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Senior forward Juan Pattillo didn’t remember at what point he brought the Toppers together, only that it was late in their Sun Belt Conference Tournament game against Louisiana-Lafayette on Sunday night.

Pattillo, who has played at three different schools and just one season at WKU, wasn’t ready to call it quits on his college career.

Neither were WKU’s other two seniors.

The Toppers’ trio of senior forwards – Steffphon Pettigrew, Sergio Kerusch and Pattillo – combined to score 65 points, and WKU (16-15) snapped Lafayette’s 11-game winning streak with an 81-76 win over the Ragin’ Cajuns (14-15) at Summit Arena.

“At one point, Juan brought us all together and told us we’re not going to lose this game,” Pettigrew said. “From there we just started getting stops, our defensive pressure picked up, and we started making plays on both ends.”

The Toppers rallied from 11 points down in the first half to lead by as many as 11 points themselves en route to the win.

North Texas awaits WKU in the semifinal round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament at 6 p.m. Monday in Summit Arena.

Pettigrew led all scorers on Sunday with 26 points. Kerusch scored 25 points, and Pattillo chipped in 14 more. The rest of the Toppers combined to score 16 points.

Head Coach Ken McDonald said WKU has to lean on seniors who have tournament-winning experience to win the four games in four days it will take to make the NCAA tournament.

Two down, two to go.

“Come tournament play, you’ve got to try to bottle up what you have,” McDonald said. “There’s no question – you could just see who was a senior – if you didn’t know the classes on the court. You can see it in the play. You can see who’s crying after the game. Obviously for the guys who have played in their last game, it’s tough.

“But the guys who step up are usually the seniors, and the first two games these guys have been huge.”

The Ragin’ Cajuns shot 50 percent from the field in the first half and out-scored the Toppers 18-8 in the paint. But WKU held Lafayette to five points over the last four minutes of the half and clawed back to within a possession before the buzzer.

The Ragin’ Cajuns ran into their biggest obstacle when their leading scorer, freshman forward J.J. Thomas, picked up his fourth foul at the 13:56 mark of the second half and fouled out of the game with 7:03 to play. Thomas scored just two points in 14 minutes.

It wasn’t until after three lead changes in the second half – WKU’s first coming with 18:42 left – that the Toppers took the lead for good. Kerusch gave WKU the lead on a layup with 7:54 to play in the game, and Pattillo then stepped in to make sure it stayed that way.

“I think we started building a good lead – a four- or five-point lead – then I was like, we’ve got to build on it,” said Pattillo, who had 10 rebounds, five blocks and four assists to go with his 14 points.

The Toppers stretched their lead to 11 points with 5:44 to go, and Lafayette never came closer than three points in the waning seconds of the game.

WKU shot 50.9 percent from the field for the game and made 21 of 30 free throws. Lafayette cooled off from 50 percent shooting in the first half to shoot 43.5 percent for the game.

The Toppers finished with a 34-32 edge in the paint, much in part thanks to Pattillo scoring 13 of his 14 points in the second half.

McDonald described Pattillo has a “confident individual” who hasn’t always responded from a poor first half the way he did on Sunday.

“There’s a certain swagger about him that helps everybody,” McDonald said. “When he’s playing well, we’re usually playing our best basketball.”

And heading into Monday’s game against North Texas, Pattillo still isn’t ready to stop playing his best.

“There’s no time to get tired. It’s either 40 minutes and go home, or it’s 40 minutes and another 40 minutes,” Pattillo said. “We’re going ride this thing until the wheels fall off, so we’re going to play as hard as we can as long as we can.”

Extras

WKU now has a winning record for the first time since a Nov. 27, 2010, loss to South Carolina…The Toppers increased a program streak by reaching the Sun Belt tournament semifinals for the seventh time in a row.