Second-half comeback falls short as WKU loses at Lafayette

Zach Greenwell

Louisiana-Lafayette hosted WKU on Saturday night with a “Fear the Beard” promotion, a play on the facial hair of standout freshman J.J. Thomas.

Turns out there was plenty more to fear about Thomas than just his beard.

The freshman’s big first half allowed ULL to open up a 12-point halftime lead on the Toppers (13-14, 7-7 Sun Belt Conference), whose second-half comeback effort fell short in a 67-64 loss at the Cajundome.

“It was an intense game, especially in the second half,” Head Coach Ken McDonald told WKU’s Big Red Radio Network. “We didn’t bring it off the bat, and they had a lot of energy to start the game. It was disappointing that in the first half, we didn’t understand how tough this was going to be.”

Thomas scored 15 of his game-high 25 points before halftime, as WKU floundered on offense through the same stretch. Thomas played 39 minutes and finished 10-of-19 from the field.

“He was just more physical,” McDonald said. “For a freshman to do that was very impressive, but it doesn’t say enough about us. We can’t allow that to happen.”

WKU started the game 2-of-12 from the field and shot just 36.7 percent in the first half.

McDonald said the Toppers’ strategy was to work the post, but the team went another direction.

“We settled for jump shots way too early and took bad shots,” he said. “We got back to some bad habits that were getting us beat. We had a lot of discipline-type issues, where we weren’t effective because we didn’t stick with the game plan.”

ULL (12-14, 9-5 Sun Belt) led by as many as 17 at 45-28 with 17:21 left in the game, but that’s when WKU broke out of its funk.

The Toppers answered with a 21-4 run over the next eight minutes, coming all the way back to tie the game at 49-49 after a free throw by senior forward Sergio Kerusch at the 9:00 mark.

Although WKU kept the game close the rest of the way, the Toppers never once took the lead.

The biggest play came with ULL leading 65-63 with less than a minute left. The Toppers had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead, but sophomore guard Jamal Crook was called for a charge with 31 seconds remaining.

“We put ourselves in position to win the basketball game, but there were a lot of execution plays down the stretch and some crazy clock plays,” McDonald said. “Unbelievable.”

After ULL’s Josh Brown added a free throw with 7 seconds left, junior guard Kahlil McDonald heaved up a final 3-point attempt, but his try failed to hit anything.

WKU shot 45.3 percent for the game but left several points at the free throw line, converting just 14-of-23 attempts. ULL shot 47.3 percent from the field and out-rebounded the Toppers, 35-28.

“Down the stretch, you’ve got to make plays, and you’ve got to make free throws,” Ken McDonald said. “There were a lot of ways we could have won this one.”

WKU had four players finish in double figures scoring, led by senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew’s 18 points.

Senior forward Juan Pattillo had 12 points, and Kerusch and McDonald each had 10.

Crook finished with seven points, six assists and five rebounds.

For ULL, Thomas’ efforts were followed by forward Travis Bureau, who had 14 points and nine rebounds.

The Toppers return home Thursday for their final game in Diddle Arena this season. They’ll host Florida International at 7 p.m., and the game will also serve as Senior Night for Pettigrew, Kerusch and Pattillo.

“It’s a chance to say goodbye to these guys that have meant a lot to the program and put a lot of time in,” McDonald said. “It’s always a nice night, and this is no different. This is a big game. We’re still in a hunt, and we have to finish out strong.”