Tops ride free throws, big effort from Pattillo to 81-78 win at FIU

Zach Greenwell

The Toppers netted 22-of-25 free throws at Florida International Thursday, and it turned out they needed every one of them.

That and a standout performance by senior forward Juan Pattillo.

Pattillo recorded 20 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks against the Golden Panthers, helping WKU (8-11, 3-4 Sun Belt Conference) claim an 81-78 win at the U.S. Century Bank Arena in Miami.

“Free throws were huge, and several guys stepped up at the end,” Head Coach Ken McDonald told WKU’s Big Red Radio. “We needed every one tonight. We needed every single free throw, and it really put pressure on Florida International to come down and execute. They had momentum in that last six minutes, and we had to do what we had to do to finish.”

Pattillo’s biggest basket was a long jumper with six seconds left in the game, providing the dagger for the Toppers as the shot clock expired.

“As a captain of the team, we take pride in late-game situations,” Pattillo said. “I had the shot, so I had to take it.”

After losing six consecutive games over WKU’s winter break, the Toppers have won three straight since.

“We’re starting to realize our potential,” Pattillo said. “I tell guys that games are won on defense, and I think we’re starting to play better defense. If you don’t play good D, you’ve got to come down and get a bucket. But if you play D, and you’ve got a lead, every bucket doesn’t mean so much.”

Every basket was valuable for WKU on Thursday as it tried to stave off a comeback by FIU (8-12, 3-5 SBC).

The Toppers led 63-49 with 9:49 left in the game, but the Panthers slowly started to chip away behind a flurry of WKU turnovers.

“We turned the ball over a little bit, and the body language got away from us a little bit,” McDonald said. “I think it was a good learning lesson for guys, especially on the road. I think it’s easier to correct that on the road, but when you’re on the road, you can’t be thinking that the officials are going to bail you out or it’s someone else’s mistake.”

A 12-2 run by FIU later in the half cut WKU’s lead to 74-73 with 2:04 left, but the Toppers kept the Golden Panthers at bay with clutch scoring.

A 3-point play by Pattillo gave WKU some separation, and baskets by senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew and Pattillo kept the lead at three with less than a minute left.

A 3-point attempt by FIU’s Phil Gary could have tied the game at the buzzer, but it was no good.

FIU’s DeJuan Wright led all scorers with 25 points.

WKU senior forward Sergio Kerusch led the Toppers with 21 points. Senior forward Cliff Dixon scored 12 points in just 18 minutes, and junior guard Kahlil McDonald had six points and six assists.

Sophomore guard Jamal Crook, who Ken McDonald said dislocated his pinky finger during the game for the second time this week, finished with six points, six rebounds and four assists.

Pattillo’s six blocks were a high for him during his lone season at WKU.

“Juan did a lot of things,” Ken McDonald said. “He was all over the place, made big shots and made big free throws down the stretch.”

Pattillo’s effort flirted with a triple-double, a mark he joked he would have pursued had he known how close he was. The former Oklahoma transfer made 12-of-13 free throw attempts.

“I really don’t feed into whether I’m making free throws or missing free throws,” he said. “I just go through the same routine every shot.”

WKU shot 54 percent from the field but was out-rebounded by six and had 15 turnovers. FIU shot 42.4 percent from the field.

The Toppers head to Boca Raton, Fla., on Saturday for a game at Florida Atlantic. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m.

The Owls are 8-0 in the Sun Belt and have alreaden beaten WKU in Diddle Arena this season, so Ken McDonald said he expects a fight.

“We’re going to have to play better than this to beat them,” he said. “The atmosphere’s probably going to be as good as it’s been there. I’m sure they’ll have a good crowd and be excited to defend the home court. We’ll have to be a hard-nosed team to get that win.”