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February 28, 2009MURFREESBORO, Tenn.-- For one half at least, it had the looks of a one team show.
But then the fortunes were reversed. After playing one of its best halves all season, WKU struggled to fins much of anything. Its 22-point halftime lead was cut to four nearly midway through the second half.
Thanks to some timely baskets and foul shots, the Toppers held off Middle Tennessee 68-49 on the Blue Raiders' senior night.
The win gives WKU the Sun Belt Conference regular season title, its 41st conference championship in school history, a feat that trails only Kentucky and Kansas.
For coach Ken McDonald, it was a matter of keeping composure after the lead shrank.
"The attitude in the huddle wasn't very positive at that point," he said. "There were actually several huddles where the attitude wasn't very positive. We just weren't guarding and we probably got a little tired.
"Most of all, we got regrouped and understood that we're gonna have to defend and rebound to win the basketball game. So, we started defending a little harder."
Senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez was the biggest hero for the Toppers, finishing with 19 points.
The senior turned in a gutsy performance, after hitting the floor with 10:30 left in the first half and holding his knee. He returned three minutes later and played 36 minutes on the night.
"I could still feel it (the rest of the game)," Mendez-Valdez said. "This game meant too much to me. I wasn't gonna sit out."
Sophomore guard Sergio Kerusch also turned in a big performance, with a game-high 14 rebounds to go along with 13 points.
"You've just gotta do what your teammates need you to do," Kerusch said. "Honestly, Pett (Pettigrew) and Jeremy (Evans), when they were in there, he helped me out a lot. They boxed out for me and they just let me go down there and get them. It was a team effort. Even though I ended up with the rebound stats, it was a team effort on rebounds."
Junior guard A.J. Slaughter added 13 points, while sophomore forward Steffphon Pettigrew finished with ten points.
The Toppers benefitted from MTSU forward Desmond Yates fouling out before the first media timeout of the second half. Demetrius Green and Nigel Johnson followed suit before the last media timeout.
WKU now has the benefit of clinching a post-season birth as regular season conference champions. If the Toppers don't win the SBC tournament, they're guaranteed a spot in the NIT.
"It's good, but you can't show too much emotion," Mendez-Valdez said. "The hard part is yet to come. I've been in this situation before as an older guy. It's great and it's good, but it's not exactly what you want. It's not the ultimate goal, so you have to stay focused and get three wins in a row."
As the No. 1 seed in the tournament, WKU will play the winner of the Florida International and Louisiana-Lafayette first round game. The Toppers will take on the winner in Hot Springs, Ark. March 8 at 12:30 p.m.