Head Coach Ken McDonald said that if someone told him WKU would survive Thursday night with senior forwards Sergio Kerusch and Juan Pattillo scoring just five points, he’d call them “crazy.”
It seems that wasn’t so crazy after all.
The Toppers (13-13, 7-6 Sun Belt Conference) got a layup by sophomore guard Jamal Crook with 0.7 seconds left on the clock, edging Arkansas-Little Rock, 61-59, at the Jack Stephens Center.
Senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew led WKU with 18 points and 10 rebounds, but it took a team effort from the rest of the Toppers to overcome the struggles of Kerusch and Pattillo, who were a combined 2-of-12 from the field.
“Other guys stepped up and made plays, and down the stretch it came down to one play,” McDonald told WKU’s Big Red Radio. “It’s amazing how it ended. We had to execute a play and then make an extra play with Jamal putting it back up.”
WKU led for nearly the entire game, but six straight points by the Trojans (14-13, 6-6 Sun Belt) in the final minutes of the game created a 59-59 tie with 28 seconds left.
The Toppers wound the clock down before Pettigrew attacked the rim, but he lost his handle on the ball on his way up for a shot. The ball was deflected into the hands of a streaking Crook, who tossed up the game-winner.
Crook, who said after the game that he hasn’t hit a game-winning shot since the seventh grade, said he decided to take a chance on the final play in case there was a second try.
“I was hoping my defender would go help with Pett, and then I was really cutting down to the basket, hoping he didn’t see me,” Crook said. “I was right there at the right time.”
The win brings WKU’s record to .500 for the first time since Dec. 11, when the Toppers improved to 5-5 with a win over Southern Illinois.
WKU lost six straight games after that to drop to 5-11 but has won eight of 10 since.
“We knew we were at the bottom, but we’ve got to keep fighting and pushing to the top,” Crook said. “Eventually we’re going to come through.”
The win also brought WKU within 1 1/2 games of Middle Tennessee, which the Toppers are fighting for the No. 2 seed in the Sun Belt’s East division.
“We’re still alive for a lot of things,” McDonald said. “Our guys are really believing in each other. The rotation’s a little smaller, but a lot of guy’s are playing well.”
The Toppers held a 36-27 lead at halftime and led by as many as 10 with 11:59 left in the second half.
But UALR closed to within four with 7:23 left, and the Trojans tied the game in the final 30 seconds with a basket by guard Soloman Bozeman.
Watching a sizeable lead dwindle late has been a trend for WKU this season, but McDonald said the team talked in the huddle about not letting Thursday’s game slip away.
“It’s a great win in every sense of the word,” he said. “We had come so far to the four-minute mark. We said that’s exactly where we wanted to be, and now we have to finish this out.
“Even though they made some plays to get the crowd get going, we didn’t hang our heads and finished the game.”
WKU shot 43.6 percent from the field and out-rebounded UALR, 40-31.
The Toppers had 15 assists, including five from Crook. The sophomore also had nine points.
Sophomore center Teeng Akol continued to progress off the bench, finishing with career highs of 11 points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes. The 6-foot-11-inch big man even knocked down a 3-pointer early in the second half.
“Teeng is coming through really well,” Crook said. “It’s better to come along now than later, and he’s coming on at the right time.”
Sophomore guard Caden Dickerson also had 10 points. Although Kerusch and Pattillo didn’t produce offensively, the pair of seniors each played at least 28 minutes and combined for 13 rebounds.
Guard Matt Mouzy led UALR with 17 points.
The Toppers head for Louisiana-Lafayette at 7 p.m. Saturday, where McDonald said they’ll continue to try to “control their own destiny” in the Sun Belt standings.
He said WKU wants as much momentum as it can get, and Thursday’s game provided quite a bit.
“It was a total team effort,” McDonald said. “You’ve got to give credit to Little Rock for coming back and not giving up at any stretch. They kept fighting, and it was a great finish.”