For the first time in two weeks, there were smiles after the game. There were actually smiles just before the end of the game.
For the first time since he broke his foot the day before the Louisville game, junior forward Sergio Kerusch was in uniform. With under a minute left, the student section chanted his name. Coach Ken McDonald motioned for him to check in, then quickly pushed him back to the bench. Each had a sly grin on their faces.
Kerusch wasn't needed yet. All five starters scored in double figures as WKU easily put away visiting New Orleans 76-56 to end a five-game losing streak.
"I almost forgot what winning feels like," senior guard A.J. Slaughter said.
"We finally just got over that hump tonight and got back to our winning ways. I think we showed a lot of improvement and we can go back and watch this tape and keep improving on it."
Slaughter and junior forward Steffphon Pettigrew each had a team-high 18 points.
Senior forward Jeremy Evans finished with 12 points, but more impressive was his play around the basket. He finished with 13 rebounds and was a big reason why the Privateers scored just 20 second half points.
"It's a big relief, not only for the seniors and the upperclassmen," Evans said. "We know we have our ups and downs and we still have our heads up. For our young guys, to show that we're not gonna let up no matter what happens. We still have games left."
That defense also forced 25 New Orleans turnovers, 14 coming on steals. WKU capitalized with 25 points off those mistakes.
"When you have guards that are willing to go out there and pressure and do some things, it kinda energizes everybody," McDonald said. "It can happen that quickly. We had a couple of spurts there where it was bang, bang, bang, steal, steal, steal and easy bucket on the other end. We picked up in the full court. Steffphon Pettigrew came up and was aggressive and Jeremy was real active. I thought overall there was just a lot more intensity on the defensive end."
The guard play finally picked up tonight. Slaughter had help from freshman guards Jamal Crook and Caden Dickerson, who finished with 11 and 14 points.
"Personally, I thought (I) was outstanding," Crook said. "I got some career highs in a few areas, such as rebounds and steals. I feel great about it. I'm just hoping that Coach can still grow his trust with me and just continue to go from there."
It's not the cure-all just yet, but there's at least a sense of reprieve among the Toppers. The pressure's still there to get back to some normalcy.
"Not to say that the pressure's off, but we always wanna keep improving," Evans said. "We're not gonna just take this win for granted. We're always gonna get our best shot from every team. We just wanna go out and keep defending and know that they're not gonna let up. They want it as bad as we do."
The pressure's not so much on Kerusch to return just yet. McDonald said it still might be a game or two before he returns.
But the sense of fun and humor is back. McDonald said he had planned to razz Kerusch a little bit if the situation presented itself.
"I told Serge I was gonna do that because he had his headphones on somewhere he shouldn't have his headphones on," McDonald said. "I told him I was gonna keep putting him up at the scorer's table and bringing him back just to mess with him."
The messing with WKU for losing should at least let up now.
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