Toppers enter survival mode for Sun Belt tournament

Middle Tennessee freshman Kerry Hammonds attempts to block WKU senior Sergio Kerusch during the Toppers’ game at MTSU on Saturday. WKU lost 57-39, finishing third in the Sun Belt East division.

Zach Greenwell

Saturday was an exercise in acceptance for the Toppers — accepting that they didn’t earn the Sun Belt East’s No. 2 seed and now have to play four games in four days to win the conference tournament.

And most importantly, WKU said it accepted that its season will end with one more loss.

“One game — that’s it,” junior guard Kahlil McDonald said. “Either we do our job, or we’re out of here.”

The Toppers’ goal over the past few weeks had been to secure the two-seed in the Sun Belt’s East division, which would mean a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

But their 57-39 loss at Middle Tennessee on Saturday wiped away any chances of that, giving MTSU the coveted free pass through the first round.

WKU will now play Louisiana-Monroe, the No. 6 seed from the West division, at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Hot Springs, Ark.

“We’ve got one game,” Head Coach Ken McDonald said. “We’re playing Monroe. We’ll obviously focus on the scout, but just like tonight — it’s not what Middle did. It’s what we didn’t do, and that’s what’s important to know in tournament play.

“We have to go out and make it happen.”

The Toppers played ULM once earlier this season, claiming an 81-61 home win on Feb. 5.

If they win, they’ll face Louisiana-Lafayette at 6:45 p.m. Sunday.

The semifinals and finals of the tournament will be played on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, with the championship airing on ESPN2 at 6 p.m.  next Tuesday.

WKU missed out on a bye last year and was forced to try the long route to a Sun Belt championship, but came up short in the semifinals against Troy.

Senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew, who went to back-to-back NCAA tournaments in his first two seasons, said playing on four consecutive days is all about having a survival mentality.

“We lose and go home, or we win and keep advancing,” Pettigrew said. “We’ve just got to play like it’s our last and hopefully keep advancing.”

WKU had won nine of its last 12 games coming into MTSU on Saturday, but the Toppers stagnant showing was a blow to their momentum.

The loss was WKU’s fourth straight to the Blue Raiders, as well as its worst margin of defeat to its rival since 1978.

The Toppers’ 39 points were also the fewest they’ve scored against MTSU since the 1935-36 season.

They hit their last field goal of the game with 5:08 remaining and scored just one point after that, missing eight of nine free throws in the final minutes.

“It felt like we quit, to be honest,” Kahlil McDonald said.

With the regular season over, the Toppers will have the MTSU loss fresh in their minds until they take the court Saturday.

Ken McDonald said he’s fine with that, as long as the “disappointing” effort lights a fire under them.

“If you’re made out of anything, you’re hopefully really down about how you played,” he said. “Hopefully this feeling stays with you, because the next time you play like this, you’ll be done for the year.”