Toppers having fun as season winds down

Senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew lays up the ball during the first half of WKU’s game against Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday. WKU won 81-61.

Zach Greenwell

Senior forward Sergio Kerusch said the Toppers didn’t need any dramatic speeches after last Thursday’s loss to South Alabama.

There weren’t any big, defining locker-room moments like you’d see in the movies.

Instead, Kerusch said they understood it was simply time to go back to work Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe.

“It was an unspoken truth,” he said. “Everybody just knew what had to be done. We just came in and punched in our timecards and made it happen. We had a tenacity about us that was just crazy.”

WKU (10-12, 5-5 Sun Belt Conference) blitzed ULM with improved energy Saturday, breezing to a comfortable 81-61 win.

The victory was a stark comparison to last Thursday, when the Toppers’ self-proclaimed lack of energy cost them an 80-76 loss in Diddle Arena.

“We weren’t like dogs in the South Alabama game, but we weren’t warriors,” Head Coach Ken McDonald said. “We weren’t playing the kind of game we needed to, especially with how we had been building with our defense and team plays and hustle plays.

“But I am proud of the fact that the guys really bounced back with a lot more effort on the defensive side, and a lot more energy and enthusiasm.”

WKU won over Saturday’s crowd in Diddle with numerous hustle plays.

There was Kerusch diving for a missed free throw with the Toppers already up 18. There was junior guard Kahlil McDonald and sophomore center Teeng Akol making possession-saving passes to senior forward Juan Pattillo for a dunk.

And there was Akol, a rarely used reserve, flashing his blocking skills and a set of post moves.

“Things like that are contagious,” Kahlil McDonald said. “When one guy does it, you hope that other players feed off of it. If one guy or two guys step up, the rest will follow.”

Ken McDonald specifically praised the diving save by Kerusch in his postgame press conference. After criticizing the seniors’ lack of leadership on Thursday, McDonald said Kerusch set the tone by going the extra mile.

Those are the kinds of plays that you want to represent your program when we talk about our identity,” Ken McDonald said. “You want your fan base to look at that play and say, ‘Wow, when I come out to see the Hilltoppers, that’s what I see — that effort.’”

Kerusch said that effort hasn’t been around all season, largely because the Toppers’ have often taken themselves too seriously.

“We just had fun,” he said. “Seriously, we picked up our defensive intensity, and it looked like we had fun doing it. We’re back to having fun, and it started with our defense.”

At 5-5 in the Sun Belt, the Toppers sit in third in the league’s East division. They have seven regular season games left to work their way into a No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the Sun Belt Tournament, starting at home Thursday against Middle Tennessee.

But if things are going to finally come together, Kahlil McDonald said WKU needs to take Kerusch’s advice and lighten up a little.

“We’re athletic enough to stop anybody in this league,” he said. “So the energy — we shouldn’t have that problem again hopefully.”