WKU held one of the few leads it had held all night and the ball was in the hands of the player that the Toppers would like controlling the ball more than any others.'
And as senior guard A.J. Slaughter drove down the left wing, he looked for his shot. But instead of launching up what would've been a tough jumper in traffic, he looked left.
Slaughter found an open Sergio Kerusch at the left elbow, just inside the arc. The junior forward let a jumper go that found the bottom of the net and gave WKU a three-point lead.
Visiting Cal-State Northridge senior forward Vincent Cordell hit a tying three-pointer, but senior guard Anthony Sally hit one of two free throws on the ensuing possession to give the Toppers the edge in a 68-67 nail-biter in the consolation bracket of the Dick's Sporting Goods NIT Tipoff.
"Honestly, I'm pretty confident," Kerusch said. "A lot of hard worker this summer and like Coach Mac said, he has no problem in my confidence. I'll shoot it as long as my teammates allow me to keep shooting."
Kerusch led all scorers with 24 points. He also hit a big three-pointer with 1:43 left to pull the Toppers within one. WKU trailed for nearly the entire second half and fell behind by as much as eight with under 15 minutes left in the game.
And though the Toppers shot just 41 percent from the field and were out-rebounded 35-31, they made the clutch plays when they had to.
"I don't know if you believe me when I say it, I love close games," coach Ken McDonald said. "I think it builds your character. Now I don't like playing poorly. I don't think we played very well and I'll take some of the responsibility. I've probably gone too hard on them, knowing that we had a two-game stretch. But it's about improvement at this time and in the year and we have to get better each day, understanding that we really don't have an easy game on our schedule."
In the first half, the Matadors used their up-tempo game to success, quickly pushing the ball up the floor after a WKU make or miss. Cal-State Northridge led by two at halftime, but the Toppers made the adjustments defensively. The biggest defensive stands came from senior forward Jeremy Evans, who drew a pair of charging fouls in the game's final minutes.
"To know that I've only got like three or four months left and I haven't played how I was supposed to be playing all year," Evans said. "The coaches keep telling me I need to get more aggressive or I'll be sitting right there beside 'em."
The biggest foul came before Sally's final free throw. With the game tied at 67, Sally raced up the right side of the court and collided with senior forward Willie Gallick, who was called for the blocking foul. Sally missed the first free throw, before knocking down the second.
The Matadors didn't do themselves any favors though by turning the ball over 24 times, many the result of their fast-paced style.
"I thought there was a stretch when we had gotten up by seven or eight and we got really careless with the ball," coach Bobby Braswell said. "We're still in the learning process, the growing process. I thought we stood up and took a deep breath and kinda let 'em back in."
The clutch shot of Kerusch proved to be the deciding factor in the late minutes. Slaughter finished with 13 points, but again had an off-night, going 4-12 from the field.
Though Slaughter is many times the one taking the shot in the final stages of a game, Kerusch said he doesn't mind taking that shot when he has to.
"I'm feeling good and what makes me feel better is that my teammates actually trust me to make big plays," Kerusch said. "Coach told me it's always big to let your teammates have confidence in you. I just see that, as I'm maturing as a player and as a person, that my teammates having confidence in me. I'll take this leadership role, as long as I'm hot, as long as they need me to take it."
WKU hosts Indiana State tomorrow night at 7 pm in another consolation game while Cal-State Northridge will play Coastal Carolina, a 77-62 winner over Indiana State, at 4:30.
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