WKU upends Sun Belt leader FAU with 57-53 road win

Zach Greenwell

Senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew said WKU started turning the tide in its last meeting with Florida Atlantic on Jan. 15.

That contest ended with a 78-73 loss for the Toppers in Diddle Arena.

But on Saturday, WKU (9-11, 4-4 Sun Belt Conference) used a rematch with the Owls to put the rest of the Sun Belt on notice.

The Toppers got 18 points from Pettigrew and senior forward Sergio Kerusch’s fifth double-double in seven games, picking up a 57-53 win over FAU at the Burrow in Boca Raton, Fla.

“We were hustling,” Head Coach Ken McDonald told WKU’s Big Red Radio. “This was a physical game. I told them that if we’re going to be in the championship game in the Sun Belt Tournament — which I expect — it’s going to be against Florida Atlantic most likely.

“We’ve got to treat this like a chance to go to the NCAA tournament, and guys were fired up.”

The win was WKU’s fourth straight since starting Sun Belt play 0-4 for the first time ever. It also delivered FAU (16-6, 8-1 SBC) its first loss in league play.

“I think the turning point came when we played them last time at home,” Pettigrew said. “We didn’t win that time, but I think that was the turning point. We started finding that concept of team. We’re working hard on defense and getting points when it counts.”

The Toppers came out of the gate fast Saturday, taking their largest lead of the day at 30-15 with 4:24 left in the first half on a layup by sophomore guard Jamal Crook.

The Owls cut WKU’s lead to single digits with just over a minute left before halftime, but Pettigrew sent the Toppers into the break with a 33-21 advantage after a 3-pointer.

WKU shot 54 percent in the first half and made six of their seven 3-pointers. FAU struggled mightily in the first half, shooting 28 percent from the floor.

“We didn’t give them back momentum so much,” McDonald said. “They made a couple plays to end the half, and that’s the way it goes. But in the second half, we had to gut it out down the stretch.”

Things tightened quickly in the second half after FAU rattled off a 12-2 run, pulling within 35-33 with 16:45 remaining.

But WKU continued to absorb the Owls’ punches and never relinquished the lead — not even during a nearly seven-minute stretch late in the game in which the Toppers didn’t score.

Senior forward Juan Pattillo made a layup with 9:03 left to put WKU up 49-42, and the Toppers didn’t score again until two free throws by Pettigrew at the 2:19 mark.

Kerusch put the exclamation mark on the game with a putback dunk with 1:09 left, and Crook made four free throws in the final 60 seconds to ice the win.

“Down the stretch, we came together,” Pettigrew said. “Everybody stayed together, and we came out with the win.”

WKU was out-rebounded in the game and turned the ball over 15 times, but the Toppers overcame those deficiencies by holding FAU to 36 percent shooting.

Kerusch finished the game with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Pattillo finished with five points and nine rebounds, and sophomore guard Caden Dickerson added nine points on three 3-pointers.

Crook pitched in eight points and four assists off the bench, once again providing a spark that pleased McDonald.

“He did make some big plays,” McDonald said. “We needed someone to make plays in that stretch because we couldn’t get the ball in the hole or even get a good shot up. He also wanted to shoot free throws. He said, ‘Coach, I’m money from the free throw line.'”

Brett Royster and Raymond Taylor each scored 14 points for FAU. Greg Gantt added 12.

Perhaps the most encouraging part of WKU’s four-game winning streak is that the Toppers now return to Diddle for five straight games.

They’ll play four Sun Belt contests at home from Feb. 3-12 before hosting Florida Gulf Coast on Feb. 14.

After a tumultuous start to the season, McDonald said he and the team are ready to come home with momentum and fan support on their side.

“I’m really excited about this stretch, as long as we continue to treat each game as an individual game,” he said. “We’re not out of the woods. We’ve got to continue improving. It’s great that our fan base is so good. I think they’ll be there for the kids, and we can really get something going now.”