HOT SPRINGS, Ark.— It was desperation time for North Texas.
Trailing WKU by eight with 33 seconds left, Mean Green senior Adam McCoy heaved up an errant three-point attempt from the right wing.
But Toppers sophomore forward Sergio Kerusch broke the 'Golden Rule' in that situation. He fouled McCoy.
WKU coach Ken McDonald immediately pulled Kerusch out of the game. As the teacher scolded his pupil on his way to the bench, the Topper faithful in the stands gave him a standing ovation. In the mixed signals, Kerusch waved a hand, without looking, at the fans.
But that was about all Kerusch could do wrong, in leading the way for the Toppers in a 77-70 win over North Texas in the semi-finals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
"He messed up," McDonald said. "He really messed up. But, because he was player of the game, I'm gonna forgive him. Now go ahead and answer. I wanna here your version (to Kerusch)."
And after a chuckle, Kerusch was quick with a response on what he did wrong on the play.
"Coach has been working on my defense," Kerusch said. "They came out and my hand wasn't high enough and I didn't shop my feet. You've gotta chop your feet when you play defense. I ran out, hopped, you can't change direction in mid-air. Right, Coach? My hands were low, he went up for the shot and I caught him on the elbow. That was just a turn of events, but you saw how quickly (McDonald) yanked me out of the game."
Kerusch finished with a game-high 23 points and ten rebounds.
For most of the game, it was an uphill battle however, for WKU. The Toppers fell behind by as much as eight just before the last media timeout of the first half. They trailed from the 5:27 mark of the first half, until they retook the lead just before the first media timeout of the second half.
WKU is no stranger to coming from behind.
"I told the team going into the second half on the court, I said we've been in 15 of these games where we're behind," McDonald said. "We don't flinch and we've won our share. We felt like, we're a championship team and that was the type of effort it was gonna take in the second half. It's a long game. I didn't want us to get emotional and guys think they have to step up and make the great play offensively. I still wanted us to continue to play as a team."
For all of Kerusch's heroics, he also had help from junior guard A.J. Slaughter, especially late. On back to back possessions with under five minutes left, Slaughter hit consecutive three-pointers, that put WKU up by six.
He scored 12 of the Toppers' final 19 points, in finishing with 22 points.
"The game was tied up and we came out and was supposed to come out running a play," Slaughter said. "I turned the ball over, trying to get it inside, so I took it as, I couldn't let my team down or we could've lost it. I figured I would step up and make two huge shots. To get a lead on this tam, it was a thing for me to do, with the position I'm in. I'm glad it went in."
There was a scary moment for both teams with nine minutes left in the game. Junior guard Anthony Sally and North Texas senior guard Collin Dennis collided going after a loose ball. After both players were down for a couple of minutes, they were helped off, with Sally favoring his left leg and Dennis favoring his right leg.
Sally would later return, though Dennis remained on the bench.
It's more vindication for Kerusch, who was left off any of the SBC post-season all-conference teams, though he was named the league's player of the week twice this season.
"I was disappointed, because of course you wanna win an award," Kerusch said. "But, it's about the team. Coach Mac told me, he said 'Go out and prove them wrong.' That's my motivation every night before I get on the court. I've got something to prove. That's the whole team's motivation, we've got something to prove. We were picked third in our league and we don't forget that."
Kerusch and the Toppers are now back in the championship game where they will attempt to defend last season's tournament championship.
WKU will face the winner of the South Alabama and Arkansas-Little Rock semi-final, at 9 p.m. CT tomorrow on ESPN2.