WKU wins season opener in style with 98-70 rout of St. Joe’s

Senior forward Sergio Kerusch scored 31 points off the bench and added nine rebounds in WKU’s season opener on Friday, a 98-70 win at St. Joseph’s.

Zach Greenwell

Head Coach Ken McDonald said he wasn’t sure what he’d get out of WKU before the Toppers played a game.

That probably explains why a team McDonald pegged as a defensive squad in the preseason shot the lights out Friday night.

WKU (1-0) shot a blistering 60.9 percent from the field at St. Joseph’s, opening its season with a 98-70 road win at Hagan Arena.

“This is something to build on,” McDonald told WKU’s Big Red Radio Network after the game. “As a coach, you’re hoping all the things are getting between the ears of the players. They’ve had some good practices this week, and this was a good way to come out in a good environment.”

WKU made 21 of 29 shots — a 72-percent clip — in the second half, with senior forward Sergio Kerusch leading the charge.

Kerusch scored 31 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the game, hitting 6 of 8 3-point tries. After missing WKU’s final exhibition game with a sore foot, Kerusch came off the bench against St. Joseph’s but played 27 minutes.

“It was a team effort,” Kerusch said. “I just happened to be the hot hand tonight. It could be anybody on any given night for us, and I was just blessed to have it be my night.”

Plenty of other Toppers had big nights behind Kerusch. Senior forward Juan Pattillo, playing in his first regular season game with WKU, had 17 points and 12 rebounds.

Fellow senior forwards Steffphon Pettigrew and Cliff Dixon added 17 and 11, respectively.

“We’ve got several guys that are a handful from that distance,” McDonald said. “Juan, obviously, and you see (freshman) Kene Anyigbo making a big move today. Pettigrew’s good there, Cliff’s good there.”

A layup by Dixon gave WKU a 22-13 lead with 10:24 left in the first half, but the Hawks (0-1) rattled off a 9-0 run to tie the game at 22-22.

The Toppers answered with back-to-back 3-pointers by Pettigrew and Kerusch, and they led the rest of the way. WKU made 11 of 21 3-pointers in the game.

“We did handle ourselves with a little swagger on the court today, which I like,” McDonald said. “There were a couple times where St. Joe’s was starting to put a little run together, and I thought we responded.”

A 3-pointer by Kerusch gave WKU its largest lead of the first half at 48-35 with 51 seconds left before the break, but the Hawks’ C.J. Aiken buried a 3-point shot with 2 seconds remaining to make the halftime advantage 48-38.

The Toppers didn’t let up from there, stretching their lead to 16 points after less than five minutes in the second half. A 3-point play by Pattillo made it 76-55 with 10:15 to play, and WKU never led by less than 20 the rest of the way.

Seven different players scored for WKU in the second half, and nine for the game. The only eligible Topper who didn’t make it onto the court was freshman forward Stephon Drane.

Although the number was distorted by Kerusch’s 31, WKU got 54 points from its bench.

“Our bench was good today,” McDonald said. “We didn’t miss a beat, and it’s got to be that way. We’ve got to be able to play a lot of guys, and we’ve got to wear on other teams.”

McDonald decided to mix up the starting lineup, leaving freshman guard Brandon Peters in ahead of Kerusch and giving junior Ken Brown the nod at point guard ahead of sophomore Jamal Crook. They were joined in the starting rotation by Pattillo, Pettigrew and sophomore guard Caden Dickerson.

Scoring 31 points will always soften the blow, but Kerusch said he can live with trading his starting role for a sound team win.

“This is a very versatile team this year,” Kerusch said. “You’ve got the dunking high-flyers, you’ve got Brandon who does everything, you’ve got Caden — the sharpshooter. You just have such a high-caliber group of guys, so it’s just an amazing thing that we all came together this year.”

Both point guards had solid games, but it was the junior-college transfer Brown who had the best night. He scored five points and recorded seven assists with just two turnovers, besting Crook’s four assists and one turnover.

Despite the competition, McDonald said the most important thing to remember was that the two guards had 11 combined assists with just three turnovers between them.

“I keep hearing question marks, and the truth of the matter is that both will play,” he said. “We could very well have a lot of situations where they both can play even minutes, and I don’t know a lot of teams that have that. Right now, it’s working for us.

“They both did some good things, and they both at times needed to run clock and think about situations a little bit better, but that’s always a learning process.”

WKU held the Hawks to 33.8 percent shooting and outrebounded them, 39-32.

St. Joseph’s had three players score in double figures, led by sophomore guard Carl Jones’ 17.

It’ll be a quick turnaround for the Toppers, returning to Diddle Arena for their home opener at 7 p.m. Monday against Alabama A&M.

Friday’s performance was by far McDonald’s best season-opening effort as WKU’s head coach, but he said he told the team after the game that there’s still a long road ahead.

“We’ve got a lot of potential as a team, but we’re just scratching the surface,” he said. “We want to keep going with this, and we don’t want to get cocky. But there were a lot of positives tonight.”

Extra notes

WKU’s shooting display Friday night was the first time a Topper team has shot over 60 percent in a game since a home contest against Denver on Feb. 8, 2008 … Freshman walk-on Mike Gabbard, who wore Anthony Sally’s old No. 55 jersey in WKU’s two exhibition games, played four minutes Friday and wore No. 20 … The Toppers had 26 assists against the Hawks, more than they totaled in their first two exhibition games combined (25).