Toppers drop third straight to MTSU for first time since 1930

Senior forward Cliff Dixon hangs his head as he walks off the court after WKU’s 69-60 loss to MTSU on Thursday night in Diddle Arena. The defeat marked the first time WKU has lost three straight to the Blue Raiders since 1930.

Zach Greenwell

WKU made a little history Thursday night, but it wasn’t the type they wanted.

The Toppers (10-13, 5-6 Sun Belt Conference) were blasted by a 25-3 run by Middle Tennessee that spanned both halves, falling 69-60 in Diddle Arena.

The loss was WKU’s third straight to MTSU, the first time that’s happened since 1930.

“It hurts,” senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew said. “We came out good, but in the second half, we didn’t show any energy. You can’t let a team like this get hot and get going, and that’s just something we’ve got to work on — bringing two halves together.”

Head Coach Ken McDonald said he’s much less concerned with the Blue Raiders’ recent success than he is with the conference standings, particularly that MTSU’s win tightened its grasp on the No. 2 seed in the Sun Belt’s East division.

MTSU (13-12, 8-4 Sun Belt) is now 2 ½ games ahead of the Toppers, making it a steep climb for WKU to the first-round bye that accompanies the two-seed.

“Three games is three games, and we’ve got Middle again,” McDonald said. “I’m disappointed that we had an opportunity to work double-time, really, in terms of the bye. They’re two up right now or whatever it is, and we’ve got to handle our own business.”

After trailing by three with six minutes left in the first half, WKU used a 10-0 run to reclaim a 27-20 advantage at the 3:39 mark.

But the Blue Raiders scored nine of the last 10 points in the first half — taking a 29-28 lead at halftime — and stretched their cushion all the way to 45-30 with 13:49 left in the game.

WKU scored just one field goal in the nearly 10-minute span, a layup by senior forward Sergio Kerusch.

“I thought when we got down, we reverted back to some of the body language we’ve seen in the past,” McDonald said. “We just struggled to handle some of the adversity and some of the runs that happen in a basketball game.”

The Toppers shot less than 30 percent from the field for much of the game and started the second half 1-for-12. They eventually finished at 32.7 percent, but Pettigrew said the scoring drought did too much damage.

“It snowballs once some shots aren’t falling,” he said. “We missed some open shots, and those are the shots that we usually hit.”

MTSU led by as many as 17 with 6:27 remaining, but the Toppers slowly chipped away and pulled within 62-56 with 1:17 left.

Kerusch came up with a big block on the defensive end on the next possession, but the Blue Raiders got an offensive rebound and basket and never saw their lead dip any lower.

“I think anybody would be mad and hate losing. I hate it,” Pettigrew said. “You’ve just got to stay together in the locker room. That’s the only thing you can say to these guys.”

WKU out-rebounded MTSU, 46-33, but the Toppers turned the ball over 23 times with just seven assists. The Blue Raiders scored 28 points off those miscues and recorded 12 steals.

“They got a lot of the loose balls tonight — the ones we needed,” McDonald said. “But the mental effort’s really important, and we had some execution plays out of timeouts I’m not happy with.”

Pettigrew led WKU with 18 points, and junior guard Kahlil McDonald’s 10 points represented the only other Topper who scored in double figures.

Senior forward Juan Pattillo had seven points and 13 rebounds, and Kerusch finished with eight points and nine rebounds.

James Washington paced MTSU with 24 points in a full 40 minutes, hitting five 3-pointers.

MTSU coach Kermit Davis said the Blue Raiders acknowledged that Thursday’s win had a significant effect on the standings, but he also admitted that it gave him some personal satisfaction.

“I’ve been up here a lot and had some long trips back to Murfreesboro, so it’s been the other way too,” Davis said. “Western has gotten the best of Middle for a lot of years, but sometimes things go on little runs. We have played well in those three games, and the game means a lot to me, the players and the fans.

“We’ll sure enjoy it while it lasts, but Western Kentucky will be right back.”

WKU will be right back on the court Saturday, when it hosts North Texas at 3 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN2, and the 1971 Final Four team will be honored at halftime, so McDonald said it will be a crucial contest.

But then again, McDonald said every game is important at this stage. Asked after the game how close the Toppers are to desperation, he gave a blunt answer.

“How close are we? I would hope we’re there,” McDonald said. “We’re talking about it. We’re running out of opportunities to make a run here. I want some momentum going into the tournament — positive momentum.”