Loss to Davidson gives WKU 1-2 finish on Puerto Rico trip

Zach Greenwell

WKU was able to mask a sluggish showing Friday night with a comeback win against Hofstra.

The tale of the tape was similar Sunday, but this time, there was no win to hide the struggles.

The Toppers (3-2) shot just 30.9 percent against Davidson in a consolation game of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, falling 64-51 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

WKU went 1-2 in the tournament, earning a sixth-place finish out of eight teams.

“We got out-toughed, and you hate to see that,” Head Coach Ken McDonald told WKU’s Big Red Radio. “Sometimes you have to hit a little rock bottom before you keep going, and we were exposed on some fronts in this tournament. I’m just disappointed that we didn’t put out the effort we needed.”

Davidson (2-2) dominated the Toppers in just about every facet. The Wildcats shot 48.1 percent for the game — 57 percent in the second half — and outrebounded WKU, 45-34.

The Toppers were outscored by 12 in the paint and never led in the game.

“Our chemistry’s not there when things aren’t going well,” McDonald said. “It’s always good to have good chemistry when things are going well, but you really see your true colors when the chips are down.”

No one shot the ball particularly well for WKU, and the team’s “big three” of senior forwards Sergio Kerusch, Steffphon Pettigrew and Juan Pattillo finished 11-of-36 from the field.

“Some guys just didn’t bring it today,” Pettigrew said. “If one or two of them don’t bring it, then it kind of spreads around the whole team and they kind of feed off each other.”

Kerusch had a particuarly rough day, scoring just four points in 18 minutes.

“We’re still trying to find guys that are going to go out there and play hard,” McDonald said. “Serge wasn’t ready to play today to start the game. He gave up three or four shots, so it comes down to preparation and focus. We have enough guys that they better understand right now that they’re coming out of the game if I don’t feel like they’re focused.”

WKU mustered just two baskets in the first eight minutes of the game, falling behind 18-4.

The Toppers trailed by as many as 15 at 23-8 with 8:52 left in the first half, but they ended the half on a 14-5 run to cut their halftime deficit to 28-22. They were aided by the fact that Davidson didn’t score a field goal for the final 7:53 of the frame.

WKU got a slow start in each of its three games in Puerto Rico, which was contradictory to its first two contests.

After averaging 50 first-half points in wins over St. Joseph’s and Alabama A&M, the Toppers averaged 25 in the first half in San Juan.

“It seems like we wait as a team until we’re down, and then we play hard,” senior forward Cliff Dixon said. “That’s something we’ve got to work on.”

Pattillo scored the first basket out of halftime to bring WKU within four, but Davidson’s JP Kuhlman answered immediately.

That was the story of the day, as the Toppers couldn’t keep Davidson from responding to every attempted rally.

“In the second half, we just didn’t have the scrap and the 50-50 balls that we need and talk about all the time,” McDonald said. “Davidson got them, and give them credit. There’s no question they were more focused on the things that win a ballgame than we were.”

A jumper by sophomore guard Caden Dickerson pulled WKU within seven with 12:06 left in the game, but Davidson’s Jordan Downing came off the bench to score six straight points in a three-minute span.

Back-to-back 3-pointers by Pettigrew and Kerusch later brought the Toppers within 51-44 with 7:23 to play, but the Wildcats once again put out the fire with two quick baskets.

Pettigrew followed with another 3-pointer to make it 55-47 with 5:29 to play, but Downing buried another jumper, and Davidson’s lead never shrunk into single digits again.

“You know that they can come back at the end of the game, so I guess you’re a little more on your toes,” Kuhlman said of WKU. “You’re ready for the pressure. You know the pressure is coming because you’ve seen it before. (Davidson) coach (Bob McKillop) prepared us well for it.”

Kuhlman led all scorers with 16 points, adding nine rebounds for the Wildcats.

Pattillo notched a double-double for the fourth time in his five games as a Topper, finishing with 15 points and 11 rebounds.

Pettigrew added 11 points, and Dixon played solid off the bench with eight points and eight rebounds.

The point guard battle for WKU picked up a new wrinkle Sunday, as junior guard Kahlil McDonald was used some to run the offense. Sophomore Jamal Crook and junior Ken Brown played 24 combined minutes at the position, but McDonald played 21 minutes and had three assists with no turnovers.

Ken McDonald said there’s been a lot of adjustments with seven newcomers in the fray this season, and that there’s been some tension because of starting roles and playing time.

But McDonald said the large rotation is going to continue for now, especially with the depth the Toppers possess.

“It’s a learning process with new guys,” he said. “They think it’s a quick trigger, and that they make one mistake and I take them out. What they have to understand is that with so many guys, they don’t get a very long leash. Hopefully that’ll help everyone lock in a little better.

“We’ll get back and talk about becoming a better team. We don’t resemble a team right now, and that’s really going to show against good competition.”

WKU gets nearly a week off before hosting South Carolina at 6 p.m. Saturday. The game will mark the first return of former head coach Darrin Horn to Diddle Arena since he left WKU to take over the Gamecocks in 2008.

McDonald said the extra days of practice will come in handy because he’s seen plenty of things in Puerto Rico that need work.

The Toppers were blown out by Minnesota and needed a 14-point comeback late against Hofstra to avoid going winless on the trip, so McDonald said there’s lots to be done.

“I want the guys to remember what this feels like,” he said. “We almost went 0-for-3. We got kind of lucky the other day in a way, and you’re glad you got a win. But we learned a lot about ourselves. We need to get back in the gym, lose the ego in terms of minutes and become a team.”