NOTES: Toppers, Mean Green will meet amid surprising runs

Steffphon Pettigrew celebrates near the end of Sunday’s quarterfinal game. After being down for the majority of the game, WKU came back and beat Louisiana-Lafayette, 81-76.

Jonathan Lintner

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — WKU won’t get North Texas in front of a national television audience this time around, but senior forward Sergio Kerusch feels as though the Toppers have plenty of motivation to beat the Mean Green again.

For starters, the same feeling Kerusch had after WKU exited the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in the semifinal round last year.

“That feeling sticks with you after last year, and it’s still in the back of our minds to some extent,” Kerusch said. “We’re not trying to feel that again. We can be sore when we get back to Bowling Green. We’re about to lay everything on the line — our bodies, our minds, everything. “

The Toppers face North Texas at 6 p.m. Monday in Summit Arena with a bid for the Sun Belt’s championship game at stake. The last time the two teams met on Feb. 12, WKU hung an 87-76 rout on North Texas on ESPN2.

McDonald said he joked with the coaching staff during halftime of WKU’s game against Lafayette on Sunday that the last time the staff had everyone play well in the same game was against North Texas.

“It seems like you get four guys or three guys playing really well and a couple that are just off,” he said. “We played really well in the first game. We’ve got to continue to play hard, not beat ourselves, and this should come down to a couple-possession game and execution.”

Four North Texas players average double figures, led by senior guard Tristan Thompson’s 17.1 points per game. Thompson scored 16 points in a losing effort at WKU last month, but he scored a season-high 36 points in the Mean Green’s win over Florida Atlantic on Sunday that advanced them to the semifinals.

McDonald said it wasn’t conventional to think that WKU, the No. 3 seed out of the Sun Belt’s East division, and North Texas, the No. 4 seed out of the West division, would meet in the semifinals.

But then again, it’s March.

“This is a true indication of how wild conference play is — in the regular season and the postseason,” McDonald said. “I don’t think (North Texas coach Johnny) Jones thought they were playing their best basketball coming into the tournament, but they have tournament experience and it’s like a new season for a lot of teams and a lot of people.”

Toppers subdue Lafayette’s Thomas

Louisiana-Lafayette’s leading scorer, freshman forward J.J. Thomas, had an especially rough exit to his first Sun Belt tournament.

Thomas, who averages 11.7 points per game, scored just two points in 14 minutes of action because of foul trouble.

“He wanted to get going. He wanted to be aggressive,” McDonald said. “I think he made some plays where we had good help side and stayed in front of him and really just never let him get confident.”

Thomas scored two points or less just two other times this season.

“It was on his mind, because in the first half he didn’t really score,” Kerusch said. “I just believe that we got to him mentally and we got to him physically, and that’s how we got him out of the game.”

Thomas picked up his fourth foul with 13:56 to play in the game and eventually fouled out with 7:03 to go.

WKU then went on a 6-0 run to gain its largest lead of the game.

The last time WKU saw Thomas, he scored 25 points with Kerusch guarding him.

Senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew and Juan Pattillo instead rotated on defense Sunday and said they tried to draw fouls on the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Thomas.

“We knew he was in foul trouble, and the coaches said to just keep pounding it in there,” Pettigrew said.

Game to be aired on WKYU-PBS, ESPN3

WKYU-PBS has picked up both the WKU men’s and women’s Sun Belt tournament semifinal games on Monday, according to media relations.

The games will also air live on

Tuesday’s Sun Belt tournament championship game will air on ESPN2 and