Tops’ turnaround continues with Florida sweep

Sophomore guard Caden Dickerson fights Troy’s defense for a layup in the first half of their game against Troy in Diddle Arena. WKU won 77-58.

Zach Greenwell

Most students spend the first week of a semester settling into their new classes.

The Toppers used it to give themselves a second chance.

WKU (9-11, 4-4 Sun Belt Conference) swept both Florida International and Florida Atlantic on a road swing last week, capping what has become a four-game winning streak. The Toppers lost six consecutive games before that.

“They’re dialed in and listening better than they have,” Head Coach Ken McDonald said. “They’re coming together, and that’s always a work in progress. Sometimes you tend to forget that.”

Neither win in Florida was as dominating as WKU’s last victory at home, a 77-58 beatdown of Troy.

It took some late resolve for the Toppers to escape FIU with an 81-78 win Thursday, and they managed to stave off a charge by FAU on Saturday, 57-53.

“Down the stretch, we came together,” senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew said. “Everybody stayed together, and we came out with the win.”

Pettigrew admitted that WKU has lacked that chemistry for most of the season.

He said the Toppers started to gel after their first meeting with FAU on Jan. 15. They lost that game by five in Diddle Arena, but Pettigrew said it still had a different feel.

“We didn’t win that time, but I think that was the turning point,” he said. “We started finding that concept of team. We’re working hard on defense and getting points when it counts.”

As morale and confidence slipped through WKU’s six-game losing streak, so did its defense — a tough setback for a team that labeled itself a “defensive group” before the season.

“We’re starting to realize our potential,” senior forward Juan Pattillo said. “I tell guys that games are won on defense, and I think we’re starting to play better defense. If you don’t play good D, you’ve got to come down and get a bucket. But if you play D, and you’ve got a lead, every bucket doesn’t mean so much.”

That theory proved true against FAU on Saturday. The Toppers scored just 57 points, but they stifled the Owls – previously unbeaten in Sun Belt play – by holding them to 36 percent shooting.

“We were hustling,” McDonald said. “I told them that if we’re going to be in the championship game in the Sun Belt tournament — which I expect — it’s going to be against Florida Atlantic most likely.

“We’ve got to treat this like a chance to go to the NCAA tournament, and guys were fired up.”

After playing just four home games in well over a month, WKU now returns to Diddle for five straight.

They’ll host four Sun Belt teams and Florida Gulf Coast in an 11-day stretch, potentially eyeing a nine-game winning streak by Feb. 14.

It’s an exciting future for them to envision.

But McDonald said that’ll depend on if they remember why they’re in a hole in the first place.

“I’m really excited about this stretch, as long as we continue to treat each game as an individual game,” he said. “We’re not out of the woods. It’s great that our fan base is so good. I think they’ll be there for the kids, and we can really get something going now.”