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February 7, 2009

Mendez-Valdez Shoots Tops to 67-59 Win

Instead of the opening tip-off being corralled by a player, it instead ensued in a loose ball that was deflected towards the corner of the court, next to the visitor's bench.

WKU senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez chased and dove after the ball. The end result: the ball went off of him and out of bounds, but more importantly, he crashed into a chair on the bench, receiving a gash on the top corner of his right eye.

Though he had to leave to bandage the wound, Mendez-Valdez wasn't out long.

On a day when the rest of the Toppers had a poor shooting display, the senior hit six of ten three-pointers and willed WKU to a 67-59 victory over visiting South Alabama.

"I just didn't think about it, really," Mendez-Valdez said. "I just came out and shot the ball. My girlfriend, just today, told me an interesting stat, that I was 15 for 18 on the last threes. I just kept on shooting. I figured one of these games I'm gonna catch fire."

Mendez-Valdez finished with a game-high 24 points.

"He's just really, a good basketball player," coach Ken McDonald said. "I was kinda worried after that first possession. He hasn't had a good couple of days. He's really worn down right now. Yesterday in practice, you could just see it in his eyes. He was just worn out. He's playing a lot of minutes. He plays minutes hard. Any minute he's on the court, he's usually playing really, at a high level. He's got a great basketball IQ and he's got that toughness that you want every guy to have. At times tonight, there's no question, he got the huddle going, that we needed a stop and a rebound."

Despite being out-rebounded throughout the game, the Toppers built up a lead that they held until the Jaguars grabbed their first lead of the game with 15:55 left.

But WKU rebounded in the last few minutes when it counted. With the game tied for the ninth time, sophomore forward Steffphon Pettigrew knocked down a three-pointer from the top of the key that gave the Toppers a three-point lead that they wouldn't surrender, with 1:35 left.

Though South Alabama finished with a 38-32 rebounding advantage, WKU grabbed 18 of their rebounds offensively. The Toppers also turned the ball over just five times.

"It's all mentality," Pettigrew said. "Our bigs, at halftime we just said we were gonna go out there and play hard as we can against them and limit their touches the best we can. They were killing us in the game and we just fought through it and came out with the victory."

Pettigrew and junior guard A.J. Slaughter each finished with 13 points.

The win ends a four games in a week stretch in which WKU pulled out four victories. It also keeps the Toppers in sole possession of the top spot in the Sun Belt Conference.

"I'm feeling real good," Slaughter said. "This is the last game of a long stretch. Guys was tired, but this shows a lot about our team, that we can fight through, at times like this and come out with wins. When it gets down to the Sun Belt tournament, it should be no problem with us getting three wins in a row."

In the post-game press conference, Mendez-Valdez was still showing the effects of his early tumble with two bandages over the gash.

But he and the rest of his teammates will have now have a week off to rest. WKU travels to Troy for a 7:30 p.m. game Saturday.


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