WKU moves to 0-4 in Sun Belt for first time with 78-73 loss to FAU

WKU senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew prepares to go for a layup during the first half of Saturday’s loss to FAU. Pettigrew scored a career-high 31 points, but the Toppers slid to 0-4 in the Sun Belt for the first time ever.

Zach Greenwell

The result felt all too familiar for WKU on Saturday, but Head Coach Ken McDonald was adamant that things are changing.

The Toppers (5-11, 0-4 Sun Belt Conference) dropped their sixth straight game with a 78-73 loss to Florida Atlantic in Diddle Arena, but McDonald said he’s convinced the team “made a jump.”

“We managed the game much, much better than we have in the past,” McDonald said. “The overall effort was just much better than it has been — the teamwork, the effort plays that you have to have in a game like this. But their guards made some plays to manage the clock near the end, and it was kind of tough.”

This marks the first time that WKU has started 0-4 in the Sun Belt since it joined the league 29 years ago. The Toppers haven’t been 0-4 in conference play since the 1972-73 season, when they competed in the Ohio Valley Conference.

FAU’s win was just the second ever over WKU for the Owls (14-6, 6-0 SBC). FAU coach Mike Jarvis called it the “most significant win” for the program since he took over three years ago.

“I’ve been telling my kids for three years now that we want to get to a point where we can not only compete with Western Kentucky, but eventually beat Western Kentucky,” Jarvis said. “I know Western Kentucky’s having a tough time right now, but I still know that they’ve got talent, they’ve got coaching, they’ve got history, they’ve got tradition.

“They’re a legitimate mid-major program because they have all the resources and pieces that schools like us would like to have and don’t have.”

The Toppers’ third straight home loss overshadowed a strong effort from senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew, who scored a career-high 31 points with nine rebounds.

“A lot of the jump was because of (Pettigrew),” McDonald said. “He was definitely back to his old ways today and played hard, demanded the ball and did a lot of things to put us back in contention to win a basketball game against a good team.”

FAU first took control with a 13-0 run early in the first half that gave the Owls a 20-6 lead.

Pettigrew scored 17 of WKU’s 31 points in the first half, but FAU eventually led by as many as 15 with 6:45 left before the break. Senior forward Sergio Kerusch added a 3-pointer at the buzzer to cut the Toppers’ deficit to 40-31 at halftime.

WKU tied the game at 49-49 with 11:28 remaining, but FAU went on a 15-4 run to break open an 11-point advantage with less than six minutes left.

McDonald said the Toppers forced several shots when FAU went on its game-winning run, making it harder to grab the momentum.

“We’re going to have to make some shots sooner or later, and I have a lot of faith that we’ll do that,” he said. “The guys are adjusting to different positions. Our guard play has to continue to get better, but what a difference from a game ago.”

WKU managed to cut FAU’s lead to single digits in the waning minutes, but it came no closer than the final five-point margin.

In many ways, the Toppers did show improvement. They shot 43.5 percent from the field and recorded 11 assists with just seven turnovers.

They also out-rebounded the Owls, 34-32.

“You could see it in the locker room,” Pettigrew said. “We made a big jump. The energy was there. We felt like we were a team out there. If we keep improving on that and build from this game, then we’ll be a good team. We’re going to get that win.”

FAU shot 50.9 percent from the field, however, making 7-of-12 3-point shots. Greg Gantt paced the Owls with 18 points. Raymond Taylor and Kore White had 17 and 15 points, respectively.

Kerusch finished with a double-double, posting 17 points and 10 rebounds for WKU. Senior forward Juan Pattillo had 11 points and eight rebounds.

WKU once again played all five starters for 30 minutes or more, and Pettigrew nearly went the distance with 38 minutes played.

“I think they fed off that,” Pettigrew said. “You saw (senior forward) Cliff (Dixon) ran up to my face, and the energy was there. I’ve never seen Cliff just jump off the bench and come up to me like that, but I think the guys feed off that. We’ve just got to keep it consistent.”

The Toppers hit the road again at 7 p.m. Thursday when they visit South Alabama.

McDonald said he knows negativity starts to build in a town as small as Bowling Green, but WKU has to take things “day-to-day.”

Everybody else may talk about the mounting losses, but the coaches and players simply can’t afford to, he said.

“You guys want to talk about the six-game losing streak, and I want to talk about us improving,” McDonald said. “I could sit and mope in my shower in the morning, but that’s not going to get us anywhere. If you guys want to write about that and talk about that, that’s what you’ve got to do. We made a jump today, and I’m proud of the guys.”