It turns out a two-game win streak was all it took to make the Toppers smile.
WKU (7-11, 2-4 Sun Belt Conference) breezed to a 77-58 win over Troy in Diddle Arena on Saturday night, helping ease the tension of what has been a tumultuous season.
“This game was fun,” senior forward Sergio Kerusch said. “We played together. We were just having fun, and it shows on the court. We were throwing lobs, passing — everything. We just looked like a team. For once in a lifetime, we looked like a real team.”
After losing six games in a row and falling to 0-4 in the Sun Belt for the first time ever, the Toppers have started to pull themselves out of the hole.
That process started with a road win at South Alabama Thursday, and it continued with a blowout of the same Troy (4-15, 2-5 SBC) team that beat WKU by 14 just nine days ago.
“We take things personally now,” Kerusch said. “We took it personally that we lost at Troy. We just wanted to have them come to our house, and we didn’t plan on losing at home. Once somebody keeps beating you up, one day you get tired, and you confront the bully.
“I think this team’s ready to confront the bullies.”
The win was arguably one of WKU’s most complete efforts of the season.
Three players scored in double figures, and five Toppers grabbed at least seven rebounds.
Kerusch led the charge with 25 points and 10 rebounds — his fourth double-double in five games.
“Things work themselves out in terms of chemistry, in terms of guys getting used to playing with each other,” Head Coach Ken McDonald said. “Sometimes dealing with adversity as a group for the first time — some of that stuff could be in play. But they’re really pulling for each other and working hard, and they have been for a while. It’s just really good to see some results that they can build on.”
Senior forwards Steffphon Pettigrew and Juan Pattillo each scored 12 points, but sophomore guard Jamal Crook stole the show.
Crook played 20 minutes off the bench, totaling eight points, nine assists and eight rebounds. The assist and rebound marks were career highs.
“Me and coach have kind of been going back and forth, just talking about being able to run my team in different situations,” Crook said. “It’s just mainly confidence.”
WKU struggled to create some separation from Troy for most of the first half, and a 3-pointer by the Trojans’ Will Weathers brought them within 34-30 with 2:37 left.
But the Toppers finished the first half on a 7-0 run, getting a 3-pointer from Kerusch and baskets from junior guard Kahlil McDonald and Pattillo.
A 12-3 run early in the second half swelled WKU’s lead to 19 points, and the Toppers eventually pushed their advantage as high as 25 with less than a minute remaining.
WKU limited the Trojans to 25.7 percent shooting in the second half and also out-rebounded them, 51-35.
Vernon Taylor was able to score 20 points for Troy, but the rest of the Trojans were held in check. After making 42 percent of their 3-pointers against WKU two weeks ago, Troy netted just 8-of-34 shots from behind the arc Saturday.
The numbers were much more kind to the Toppers, who shot 45.3 percent from the floor. They recorded 19 assists on 29 baskets and scored 44 points in the paint.
Pettigrew pulled down 10 rebounds, and Pattillo accompanied his 12 points with eight rebounds and five assists.
Sophomore guard Caden Dickerson scored eight points, and senior forward Cliff Dixon had seven rebounds.
The stat sheet was full for WKU Saturday, but Kerusch said that was a product of not caring about the numbers.
“Stats don’t matter anymore,” Kerusch said. “We want to know what’s in that ‘W’ column at the end of the day. That’s where we’re at.”
The Toppers make the Florida swing next weekend, playing at Florida International on Thursday and Florida Atlantic on Saturday.
Ken McDonald said the Toppers are back on the right track, but the mission now is to make sure they stay there.
“We’ve got to stay hungry,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. We’re well under .500 right now. We’ve got to continue. If we’re going to win and get ourselves back where we want to be, we’ve got to do it on the road. We’ve got an opportunity on Thursday to do that.”
And it’s an opportunity Kerusch said the team will address with a smile on its face.
“We were taking the game too seriously,” he said. “We’ve got to crack jokes and have a great time out there because you’ve got to go back to the point when everyone started playing basketball — because it was a fun thing to do. You never forget your past, and you’ve got to take it as a grudge on your shoulders.
“We got kicked while we were down, so it’s time to do some kicking.”