NASHVILLE, Tenn.- It's no secret who WKU wants to have the ball in the crucial moments of the game.
With a minute and a half to go and WKU clinging to a three-point lead, senior guard A.J. Slaughter stared down his defender from the top of the key. Slaughter has had his inconsistencies this season, but the confidence never left.
With the shot clock running down, Slaughter crossed over, switching to his left hand and falling down, laid the runner off the glass and in. It was the dagger that sealed the game as the Toppers held off Vanderbilt 76-69 in the night-cap of the Sun Belt Classic.
"It really wasn't that much pressure on me," Slaughter said. "Me standing out top dribbling doesn't mean I'm gonna take a shot or I have to make a shot. A couple of times I went in there and drew guys and made passes to my teammates, so it really wasn't that much pressure on me."
Slaughter himself started out somewhat slow, but the rest of the team did not. It's been the Achilles heel throughout the young season. This time, WKU started out hot, hitting ten of 13 shots over the first eight and a half minutes of the game.
"We came out, had a lot of intensity, energy on defense and was getting stops and finishing our stops with rebounds," Slaughter said. "That kinda led to some easy buckets at the beginning and got our confidence going."
Slaughter finished with a game-high 27 points.
The Toppers also got going without the early services of junior forward Steffphon Pettigrew. Though his play in the last two games has been crucial, Pettigrew picked up two fouls in the first minute and a half of the game and sat out the rest of the first half.
"He caught a tough break," coach Ken McDonald said. "For a physical game, it was tough for him to be out of the game that quickly. It's tough to get back in a rhythm once you get back in after sitting on the sideline for so long. We were trying a bunch of different lineups and we lost our composure a little bit at the four and the five spot for a little bit, but we were able to maintain a lead and keep some confidence and our defensive intensity somewhat."
Pettigrew finished with just four points and four rebounds in 18 minutes.
Pettigrew's absence did nothing to keep WKU from taking care of business in the paint. The Toppers were out-rebounded 21-17 at halftime, but used a strong second half to out-rebound the Commodores overall 40-31.
One of the biggest glass-eaters for WKU was junior forward Sergio Kerusch, who pulled down 11 rebounds to go with 15 points.
"The team just had great intensity off the jump," Kerusch said. "We started with good ball pressure and I believe our defense led to our offensive opportunities. We just came out and played hard-nosed defense and got some easy buckets and we got in the flow."
Following up last season's big performance in a win over Louisville, Slaughter seems to have found a home away from home in the Sommet Center.
"I don't know, I think it's the lime green and the blue out there on the court," Slaughter said. "I just was focused and came ready to play. A big game and my team really wanted this win. I was gonna do anything in my power to help them get this win."
The rest of the Toppers seem to like those colors as well.
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