Spending much of the game in foul trouble, sophomore guard Steffphon Pettigrew had been quiet for the most part of the game.
In the closing seconds and the game tied at 61, junior guard A.J. Slaughter dribbled the ball on the right wing. With five seconds left, he launched a three-point attempt that bounced right, off the rim. Pettigrew, ever stealth-like, grabbed the rebound off the right block and put it back off the glass. The ball bounced and went in.
Middle Tennessee heaved the in-bounds pass the length of the floor and missed a desperation three-pointer at the buzzer, as WKU slid by the visiting Blue Raiders 63-61.
"Coach just said, 'whoever shoots it, just hit the boards hard and just get a good shot up,'" Pettigrew said. "I did. I hit the glass. I would've been trying to get the second rebound (if it went off), but it went in and we got the W."
Over the final few minutes of the first half and the beginning of the second half, the home team had control. The Toppers pushed an eight-point halftime lead to 11 on a three-pointer by Slaughter, just 12 seconds after the intermission.
But by the 13:27 mark, MTSU had tied the game at 37. There would be three more ties, the last being before that last Pettigrew rebound and score.
"We wanted to be aggressive," coach Ken McDonald said. "We ran our play we run on the side. We had 12 seconds on the shot clock. I wanted to make sure we used a little bit of it. And the play was designed to use probably five or six seconds. We just wanted to get a good shot. The biggest thing is, we just had to be aggressive. Pett didn't have a great night because he was in foul trouble a little bit. It just shows how much heart the kid has to go in. He was a man on that last play. What's interesting is at the beginning of the game, we talked about, that there were gonna be ten men on the floor and the best five 'men' were gonna win the basketball game. There's no better way to win a basketball game than going in and one of your guys just toughing out a rebound and a finish."
McDonald and the Toppers almost literally gave away four points with 11:28 left in the game. Senior forward Matt Maresca was whistled for an intentional foul on an MTSU steal and layup attempt, after which, McDonald was whistled for a technical foul. The Blue Raiders sank all four free throws to take a six point lead, their biggest of the game.
WKU then went on an 11-0 run and never trailed again.
"It shows that we're here and every game, we're gonna come out here and play hard no matter who we play," Slaughter said. "We're at the top of the conference and it's just gonna show that when they step on the floor to play Western, especially at home, they better bring their A-game."
Slaughter led all scorers with 16 points, while sophomore guard Sergio Kerusch finished with 15 points and senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez added 14 points. Pettigrew finished with eight points in just 22 minutes, because of four fouls.
The Toppers have now won the last six meetings between the two rivals.
"There's no trophies handed out tonight and even if we won, we understand that," MTSU coach Kermit Davis said. "It's a long time. Last year, South Alabama came in here and won and beat Western twice and Western wins the tournament. It's a lot of basketball to play. We knew it was gonna be a good conference race. It's balanced and there's gonna be a lot great games left in the year."
WKU will play the second of a Toppers/Lady Toppers double header at 7 p.m. Saturday in Diddle Arena.