Tops turn cold shooting into gritty 53-46 win over Southern Illinois

Sergio Kerusch lays up during the Hilltoppers’ Saturday afternoon game against Southern Illinois in Diddle Arena. The Toppers shot just 25 percent in the first half but eventually won 53-46.

Zach Greenwell

WKU reached gut-check time again Saturday afternoon.

And this time, the Toppers answered the call.

After shooting 25 percent in the first half against Southern Illinois, WKU (5-5) shot 57 percent in the second to break out of its recent funk with a 53-46 win in Diddle Arena.

The win is WKU’s second straight after dropping four consecutive games earlier in the season.

“Every time we play Southern Illinois, it always seems like it’s the turning point of our season,” senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew said. “The guys just came together today. We put together both offense and defense.”

Sophomore guard Jamal Crook scored the first basket of the game, but WKU then went more than 10 minutes without a field goal. That cold spell allowed SIU to spark a 13-0 run, later taking its largest lead of the game at 17-4 with 10:22 to play in the first.

The Toppers’ field goal percentage dipped into single digits midway through the half, and they were just 2-of-16 from the floor when Pettigrew finally broke the drought with a dunk at the 8:49 mark.

“They hit us pretty hard early and got a lead,” Head Coach Ken McDonald said. “We couldn’t make a shot. But it very much was a typical Western-Southern Illinois game. I thought it was very physical, and I thought the guys were battling out there.”

Things picked up for WKU after the dunk, with Pettigrew and freshman guard Brandon Peters leading the way.

The duo scored all of the Toppers’ points during the 11-2 run that followed, dragging them back within four with 1:36 remaining in the half.

“In previous games, if someone hits us in the mouth, we just fold,” Pettigrew said. “But this game, we got hit in the mouth, and we just stayed together and fought all the way back.”

SIU’s Gene Teague netted two free throws to make the Salukis’ halftime lead 23-17.

WKU scored the first four points of the second half to make it a one-possession game, and a layup by Peters eventually tied it at 31 with 11:00 left.

Juan Pattillo had to wait nearly 15 minutes for his first points of the afternoon, but a basket by the senior forward with 5:09 remaining gave WKU a 38-37 lead —its first since Crook put the Toppers up 2-0.

SIU netted a free throw to tie things again, but Pettigrew answered with a 3-pointer — his first since the Davidson game on Nov. 21 — to put WKU back up 41-38.

The Toppers got consecutive baskets from sophomore guard Caden Dickerson, senior forward Sergio Kerusch and Pattillo to complete a 9-0 run, and SIU’s late efforts weren’t enough to overcome the deficit.

SIU senior forward Carlton Ray, who had led the Salukis in scoring, nailed two 3-pointers for his only points with less than a minute remaining and cut WKU’s lead to four, but the Toppers made five of their last six free throw attempts.

“We made a couple mistakes, and I know everyone was thinking the same thing as the South Carolina game,” McDonald said. “But we finished it. We actually got some stops.”

WKU shot 38.8 percent in the game and was out-rebounded by SIU by a massive 42-22 margin. The Salukis shot 43.5 percent from the field.

Turnovers proved to be SIU’s undoing, as it turned the ball over 23 times with just six assists. WKU bucked its recent trend of high turnover numbers by committing just 10 miscues.

“It took for Coach Mac to start saying a couple of things and telling us we needed to pick it up,” Peters said. “As a team, we told each other we needed to pick our intensity up, and that’s what we did.”

Pettigrew led all scorers with 15 points. Peters played 19 minutes off the bench and scored 11 points.

Much of Peters’ playing time was at the point, a position switch he was forced to make after junior Ken Brown’s dismissal from the team Saturday. He was 4-of-6 from the field and had two assists.

“I’m not surprised that he did well, but I’m pleasantly surprised that he worked the whole game,” McDonald said of Peters. “He doesn’t even know the plays at the point. That’s how good a job he does.”

Kerusch started again after playing just six minutes at Bowling Green State, adding nine points. Pattillo had five points and six rebounds.

Mamadou Seck and Teague each had 12 points for SIU.

McDonald said the win wasn’t pretty, but it was exactly what the Toppers needed after some recent struggles. WKU plays at Murray State next Saturday, and then only the Louisville game remains before Sun Belt Conference play begins.

The Toppers were running out of time to get things back on track, but they moved in the right direction Saturday, McDonald said.

“As guys settle into roles and guys get more used to competition and expectations — all of that stuff kind of rolls into the process,” he said. “Tonight we took a step forward.”