Tops overcome free throw woes for 83-61 win in home-opener

Senior forward Sergio Kerusch shoots a free throw after being fouled by Alabama A&M Monday night in Diddle Arena. Alabama A&M fouled more than 20 times against WKU in the course of the game.

Zach Greenwell

The Toppers didn’t do themselves many favors Monday night.

But despite making just 24 of 50 free throws against Alabama A&M, WKU (2-0) still breezed to an 83-61 win in its home opener in Diddle Arena.

The Toppers shot 48 percent from the free throw line, but they shot 51 percent from the field and forced 19 turnovers.

“We were aggressive,” Head Coach Ken McDonald said. “We have a lot of driving, slashing-type players from the point all the way to our five. Those guys can handle the ball a little bit and do things that put pressure on the other team’s defense, and that’s going to be a big strength of ours.

“But we have to understand that when we get to the line we have to take care of business.”

The Bulldogs (1-1) fouled WKU 37 times, but senior forward Juan Pattillo said it was disappointing to fail to convert so many points at the charity stripe.

“I don’t remember the last time we practiced on free throws,” Pattillo said. “That might be the problem. We might need to go back to the drawing board because we left a lot of points on the line tonight, no question.”

WKU was firmly in control for much of the game despite the free throw woes, leading by as many as 28 at one point in the second half.

Alabama A&M tied the game at 16-16 with a layup by Desmond Jackson at the 11:49 mark of the first half, but WKU busted it open with a 19-6 run over the next five minutes. A layup by senior forward Steffphon Pettigrew finished the spurt, giving the Toppers a 35-22 advantage.

“We got a couple good defensive stops that led to transition … and I think that might have been the turning point,” Pattillo said. “We feed off each other a lot on this team, so whoever it is making a spectacular play, we run with that.”

WKU extended that lead to 52-32 at halftime, and the Toppers maintained throughout the second half before a 3-pointer by Pettigrew that made the game 82-54 with 2:24 to go.

WKU had 46 points in the paint in the game, including 10 dunks.

“We’ve been focusing on pounding the ball inside,” Pettigrew said. “Coach said once we did a lot of damage inside, it’s going to open up the outside. Everything’s been opening up on defense. We’ve been getting a lot of steals, dunks — you saw tonight. We had all those dunks.”

Pattillo improved on a strong WKU debut at St. Joseph’s with 21 points and 12 rebounds Monday night. He’s the first Topper to score 20 points and grab 10 rebounds in a game since senior forward Sergio Kerusch did it on March 9, 2009, against North Texas.

Pettigrew had 19 points and six rebounds, and freshman guard Brandon Peters added 11 points, four rebounds and four assists.

Kerusch, who once again came off the bench, finished with nine points and six rebounds. Senior forward Cliff Dixon pitched in eight points and seven rebounds.

Cornelius Hester led Alabama A&M, which shot 38 percent from the field, with 13 points.

WKU returns to action at 6:30 p.m. Thursday when it plays Minnesota in the first round of the 2010 Honda Puerto Rico Tip-Off in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The Toppers are guaranteed three games — one each on Thursday, Friday and Sunday — which is a test Pattillo said they’ll be more prepared for after two convincing victories.

“We’re starting off on the right foot — no question,” he said. “We still have a lot of things to build on like free throws, offense and defense. Every game is a building point for us right now. We’ve got a lot of new dudes on the team, so we’re trying to take those steps to build good chemistry.”