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March 10, 2009HOT SPRINGS, Ark.- Through the mayhem celebration, many of the players were caught up in the moment.
Most of them whooped, yelled, hollered, held up one finger, but few knew what to say.
Junior guard A.J. Slaughter knew exactly how he felt, as he gave assistant coach Ray Harper a high five on the court after the game.
"It feels so good winning back to back!" Slaughter told him.
Then, moments later, coach Ken McDonald told Slaughter just how he felt.
"You did it," McDonald told him. "You went out and you did it."
In leading WKU to a 64-56 win over South Alabama, Slaughter came up big again, to give the Toppers their second consecutive Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship.
Named the tournament's Most Valuable Player, Slaughter led WKU with 18 points.
"It's a relief that we came out of the game with a win," Slaughter said. "Towards the end, they got real aggressive and came back and took the lead. We could've hung our heads and gave in, but we didn't. We stuck together and came out with the win."
But for the first eight-plus minutes, it was all sophomore forward Steffphon Pettigrew. He started out 5-8 shooting with a pair of three-pointers and scored 12 of the Toppers' first 19 points. WKU scored the game's first 11 points. Pettigrew finished with 15 points.
As a team, the Toppers came out at a blistering pace, building a 15-point lead with 5:47 left in the first half. The Jaguars weren't done by any means, using a 31-12 run from that point to take a four point lead just before the second media timeout of the second half.
"We just lost our defensive mentality," Pettigrew said. "Coach said we've been in these situations all the time, where we're coming down to the wire. We just kept our composure and kept playing as a team and we came out with the W."
Though South Alabama's star guard Domonic Tilford was held relatively in check, with 12 points, senior forward DeAndre Coleman was a dominant force inside, with 27 points on 11-16 shooting.
But WKU had a force themselves off the bench in sophomore forward D.J. Magley, who came up with another big effort off the bench. He finished with eight points and six rebounds in 19 minutes of play.
"Our bench, it's a tough situation when you're coming off the bench and you don't know how many minutes you're gonna get on a particular night, you don't know who's gonna get in foul trouble," McDonald said. "The biggest thing, I think, with D.J. has been his attitude has been terrific the last couple of months. He's just been very positive, trying to do what he can do in practice, trying to help. Honestly, come tournament time, guys step up. Some guys do it during the year, obviously, but I think he looked at it as an opportunity."
And down the stretch, the Toppers again showed their best stuff, staying perfect at the free throw line. WKU made all 14 of its free throws for the game.
"As the season went on, the biggest improvement we needed to make was adjusting during the game and understanding when a team goes on a run or takes a shot at us or gets us down, how to react to that," McDonald said. "Over the course of this weekend, you could see, in each game, different runs and you could see that we got down at pretty crucial times in the game, but we didn't panic, where two months ago, we might start throwing up bad shots, taking chances on the defensive end and not sticking with the game plan. Our team has grown just a ton since the beginning of the year. That's what we build towards."
It's back to the NCAA Tournament for WKU, where the Toppers will get back to work this week, before finding out where they'll be seeded, who they'll be playing and where, Sunday evening.
It's not exactly the same this time around for Slaughter and the members of last season's championship team. This team wasn't expected to have nearly the success it had. But now it's at least partially vindicated.
"It definitely had a different tone to it," Slaughter said. "We were just talking about that out on the court. It still felt good. Just that first time, with you just going out and winning it, it's a whole, totally different experience. Just experiencing it the second time, we're not putting it down by any means, but it did feel good, but it was definitely a different tone."