Notes: Horn pleased with return despite mixed reception

South Carolina Head Coach Darrin Horn talks to his team during a timeout in the first half of Sunday’s game against WKU. Horn is a former WKU coach and player.

Zach Greenwell

As Darrin Horn returned to Diddle Arena Saturday night for the first time since his 2008 departure, he said he felt somewhat turned around.

Fans probably felt the same way, watching the man who led WKU to the Sweet 16 in 2008 give orders from the bench at the other end of the court.

Saturday was the second game of a four-game series that Horn’s contractually obligated to play with the Toppers.

Horn played at WKU and compiled an 111-48 record in five years as the school’s head coach.

His Gamecocks routed WKU 74-56 last season at South Carolina, and Saturday’s 87-85 win in double overtime moved him to 2-0 against his alma mater.

But he said the return to Diddle was a much different experience.

“It was great. This is a special place and a great atmosphere for college basketball,” Horn said. “I’ve got nothing but great memories. It was a little different deal being back. I couldn’t find the scoreboard at one point because I was used to looking a different way.”

The Diddle crowd’s reaction for Horn was mixed at best, full of plenty of boos. But Horn said that didn’t affect his homecoming.

“I didn’t really have any expectations,” he said. “I think at game time I was focused on the game, and like I said, all my memories of my time here as a player and coach are all positive and all great. Regardless of a reaction, that’s what I’ll always focus on.”

Senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew is the last remaining Topper to be recruited by Horn. The two shared a moment after the game, and Pettigrew said Horn and the assistants he brought from WKU had nothing but good things to say.

“He just told me to keep playing hard,” Pettigrew said. “(They) just said it’s a long season and keep fighting and don’t let them get down.”

The fact that Saturday’s contest came down to the wire only made it that much more intense. Horn said he’s going to have to muster some energy for the final two meetings of the contract, but that both teams are improving in the process.

“I’m still trying to figure out who this game is good for,” Horn said, laughing. “It’s emotionally draining for everybody I think, but it was a great basketball game tonight, and I think both teams are going to get better moving forward.”

JUCO guards make clutch plays

It’s been a learning process for junior guards Kahlil McDonald and Ken Brown since transferring from junior college, but the results are beginning to show.

The two guards combined to play 62 minutes and score 19 points Saturday, running the point with sophomore guard Jamal Crook out with a hamstring injury.

“Ken Brown came in and did some great things as far as passing and hit some big shots down the stretch,” senior forward Sergio Kerusch said. “Kahlil hit a big shot for us, and guys are getting better. We’re starting to mold as a team. It’s a slow process, but the fans can see that it’s coming together.”

Brown actually played 40 minutes, adding five rebounds and three assists to his 12 points.

Both made clutch shots late in the game. They hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give WKU a 66-61 lead in regulation, and Brown’s 3-pointer with 11 seconds left in the second overtime gave the Toppers a chance to win or tie.

“The good thing about this schedule is that they’re thrown into the fire at a high level, and it’s either sink or swim,” Ken McDonald said. “You’ve got to gain some experience in a very tough environment, and you turn right back around and play at Vandy. I’m really happy with their improvement, but I expect them to keep going.”

Long minutes

WKU didn’t dip into its bench much Saturday night, playing just eight players. One of those Toppers, senior forward Cliff Dixon, played just four minutes.

Pettigrew, Kerusch, Brown and senior forward Juan Pattillo all played 40 minutes or more.

“It was very tough,” Pettigrew said. “But we condition ourselves for these types of games.”

Other than Kahlil McDonald and Dixon, sophomore guard Caden Dickerson was the only other WKU reserve to see action. The Toppers were outscored 28-13 in bench points.

“We need more guys,” Ken McDonald said. “In games like this, you’ve got to have a bunch of guys ready to go, and they don’t have to play great, but they’ve got to contribute somehow. The biggest way they have to contribute is energy, and the energy was much better tonight.”

Extra notes

Pattillo’s 18 rebounds Saturday were the most since Chris Marcus posted 18 against South Alabama in 2001 … Saturday’s game featured 17 lead changes, and it was the Toppers’ first double-overtime game since playing at Virginia in 2005 … South Carolina is now 6-1 against WKU all-time.