Tops shine on national TV with 87-76 win over North Texas

Senior forward Juan Pattillo had 18 points and 10 rebounds Saturday in Diddle Arena, helping WKU beat North Texas, 87-76, in a game broadcast on ESPN2.

Zach Greenwell

Head Coach Ken McDonald has said all season that he’s never sure which WKU team is going to show up.

On a national stage Saturday, it was an energized group of Toppers that took the court.

WKU (11-13, 6-6 Sun Belt Conference) led wire-to-wire against North Texas, winning 87-76 in front of 3,704 fans in Diddle Arena and an ESPN2 audience.

“We were on the main stage right now,” senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew said. “We were on ESPN, and I think everybody was hyped. I just knew the energy was going to be there. We came out and threw the first punch, and after we threw that first punch, we never let down.

“We just kept throwing them.”

The Toppers led by as many as 24 on a day that WKU also honored its 1971 Final Four team, placing five players in double figures scoring.

“We were going to have to go out and make them play bad to get this win,” McDonald said. “We needed everybody to play well. We extended leads at very important times.”

North Texas (16-8, 5-6 Sun Belt), which won the Sun Belt title last season with virtually the same team, scored 48 points in the paint but was hampered by a quiet day from senior forward George Odufuwa.

Odufuwa, who averages a double-double, was held scoreless Saturday with nine rebounds.

“Steffphon Pettigrew did an unbelieveable job on Odufuwa — doesn’t have one field goal,” McDonald said. “That’s a chore. He’s hurt us in the past, he’s extremely strong, and he’s a good low-post presence. For him to not have a field goal, Pett probably doesn’t get credit enough for his defense.”

Odufuwa had 15 points and 16 rebounds against WKU last season, which Pettigrew said he still remembers well.

“He destroyed us,” Pettigrew said. “I kind of took that as I needed to go out there and show what I have, and I tried to limit his touches.”

The Toppers steadily built a double-digit lead in the first half before North Texas cut its deficit to 38-36 with 2:31 left before halftime.

But WKU ended the half on a 12-0 run, including a 30-foot 3-pointer by senior forward Sergio Kerusch at the buzzer that made the lead 50-36.

A free throw by senior forward Juan Pattillo put the Toppers up 68-44 with 11:58 remaining, and they were able to play several reserves in the waning minutes while the Mean Green chipped away at the lead.

McDonald said the final rotation of bench players allowed the lead to shrink some, but that being able to play that group was a nice luxury.

“We started the game well, we ended the half well, and we started the second half well,” he said. “We’ve never really been able to put together those three parts of the game.”

Pattillo led WKU with 18 points and 10 rebounds, while Pettigrew finished with 17 points.

Kerusch scored 15 points, and junior guard Kahlil McDonald added 14. Sophomore guard Caden Dickerson pitched in 11 points.

Sophomore guard Jamal Crook was held to two points, but he recorded nine assists and no turnovers. Sophomore forward Teeng Akol also had career highs of nine points and six rebounds.

The Toppers shot 47.5 percent from the field and had 18 assists with 13 turnovers, which McDonald said were both signs that the team was able to put Thursday’s loss to Middle Tennessee out of view quickly.

“That is part of the leadership that we need, understanding that each game is important,” McDonald said. “We’re still in charge of how this thing ends out, and every game is vital at this point — home and away.”

Kedrick Hogans led North Texas with 17 points.

WKU senior forward Cliff Dixon didn’t play in the first half and did not join the team on the bench after halftime. Dixon was spotted sitting in the stands in street clothes for a portion of the second half, and McDonald said the issue would be handled “internally.”

McDonald said Dixon is still with the team, and that WKU will likely have an update on the situation in the coming days.

The Toppers will play their third game in five days on Monday, hosting Florida Gulf Coast at 7 p.m. in a non-conference contest.

Even though the game holds no bearing on league standings, McDonald said it’s important that WKU use it to keep momentum on its side.

“Don’t lose focus that we’ve won six of eight,” he said. “We had a stretch of time where we won four in a row, then didn’t play well, then played well, didn’t play well and played well.

“So we’ve gotten some of the consistency back on the right side. Now it’s time to go over the top and keep it.”