HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- Western Kentucky University (20-12) shook off a sluggish start, and heated up to shoot 67.9 percent in the second half in running past New Orleans (8-22) 83-58 in the first round of the 2010 Sun Belt Conference Tournament on Saturday evening in Hot Springs, Ark. The fourth-seeded Hilltoppers posted their largest margin of victory ever in the Sun Belt Tournament while 13th-seeded New Orleans closes out its tenure as a Division I institution and member of the league.
Extending its season-best winning streak to seven games, WKU notched its Sun Belt record sixth-straight 20-win season, the longest such stretch for the Hilltoppers in 65 years. Now with 40 seasons of 20 or more wins, WKU ranks sixth all-time in NCAA history trailing only Kentucky (54), North Carolina (53), UCLA (45), Duke (45), and Louisville (43).
After leading 31-25 at the break, AJ Slaughter drained two triples in the opening 52 seconds of the final stanza, pushing the bulge to a dozen at 37-25 as the Toppers seemed ready to pull away from the Privateers. New Orleans, however, held its ground, even cutting the margin to single digits on a Billy Humphrey three with 10:00 left in the game.
Then the Toppers delivered the knock-out blow. WKU rattled off a 25-5 run, ballooning the spread to 75-46 with 2:53 to play on a Nemanja Milosevic lay-up. The Hilltoppers were sizzling from the field, making nine-straight field goal attempts during the run and were keyed by 10 of Steffphon Pettigrew's team-high 18 points.
After a 2-for-8 performance in the first half, the junior from Elizabethtown, Ky. was a flawless 5-for-5 to go with seven rebounds, two assists, one block, and one steal. Junior Sergio Kerusch added 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting while Slaughter chipped in 13 points and a pair of steals.
WKU connected on 19-of-28 shots from the field in the second half and finished 31-of-55 for the game (56.4 percent). The Hilltoppers were 9-of-22 from long range for 40.9 percent. Despite being outrebounded by three, WKU forced New Orleans in 25 turnovers and held the Privateers to just 17 second half shots.
Charles Carmouche paced New Orleans with 21 points on 5-of-7 from three-point range.
In the first half, WKU misfired on its first five shots from the field, falling behind 4-0 until Jeremy Evans' lay-up at 16:42 broke the ice. The Hilltoppers took their first lead at 6-4 on two Slaughter free throws, but a Humphrey jumper in the paint put UNO up 10-6 with 13:47 left in the opening frame.
Tied 16-16, Caden Dickerson's lay-up at 10:28 ignited a 10-2 Topper run capped by a Slaughter trey to give WKU its largest lead of the first half, 26-18, with 6:45 on the clock.
Ten of 11 Hilltoppers scored with eight contributing five points or more.
WKU advances to Sunday's quarterfinal round of the 2010 Sun Belt Conference Tournament and will face fifth-seeded Arkansas State at 6:30 PM CT at Summit Arena. The Hilltoppers swept the season series with the Red Wolves winning 79-68 in Bowling Green (Feb. 11) and 78-76 in an overtime thriller in Jonesboro, Ark. on February 20. WKU is 14-3 all-time in quarterfinal round.
SBC TOURNAMENT NOTES:
• WKU picks up its seventh-straight Sun Belt Tournament win, trailing the 2001-03 squads for the longest streak in school history at nine-in-a-row
• WKU is the fourth seed in the Sun Belt Tournament for the sixth time, now improving to 2-5 all-time as that seed
• WKU is pursuing its third-straight Sun Belt Tournament title, and eighth in 28 years of league affiliation; a third consecutive tournament championship would tie WKU (2001-03) and UAB (1982-84) for the all-time league mark
• The seven Sun Belt Tournament titles by WKU is the most by any team in league history; the Toppers have won five of the last eight championships
• WKU improves to 38-20 all-time in the Sun Belt Tournament, ranking as the all-time leader in wins
• WKU improves to 6-6 all-time in the first round of the SBC Tournament
• WKU improves to 10-1 this season against their half of the bracket
• The 26-point margin of victory is the most ever by WKU in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament
• WKU improves to 23-8 all-time against New Orleans, now having won nine-straight over the Privateers
• Tonight marked the final meeting between the two programs as New Orleans is leaving the Sun Belt Conference for the NCAA Division III ranks this summer
• WKU improves to 285-120 all-time against the 12 current members of the Sun Belt Conference
• With the victory over New Orleans, WKU reached 20 wins for the sixth-straight season, extending their own Sun Belt record streak; the stretch is the longest in 65 years in Hilltopper history
• The 20-win season is the 40th in WKU history, ranking sixth most all-time in NCAA history, trailing only: Kentucky (54), North Carolina (53), UCLA (45), Duke (45), and Louisville (43)
• Since Sergio Kerusch returned to the line-up 10 games ago, the Hilltoppers at 8-2, are averaging 79.7 ppg, have a scoring margin of +14.0 ppg, and are out rebounding opponents by 8.0 rpg
• WKU extended its overall, season-best winning streak to seven games (five coming away from Diddle Arena); the Toppers have won eight consecutive games against Sun Belt foes
• WKU has now made a three-pointer in 703-straight games (dating back to the inaugural season for the shot in 1986-87), ranking sixth all-time
• For the first time in 28 games, WKU did not play on TV (they are 17-10 in games on TV this season)
• Over the past five games, WKU is shooting 40.8 percent from three-point range and are averaging 9.8 made threes per game (49-of-120)
• WKU led at the half for the 15th time this season, improving to 12-3 in those games
• AJ Slaughter, the final Sun Belt Player of the Week and a First-Team All-Conference selection, entered the game second in the Sun Belt Conference in scoring at 17.7 ppg; the only Hilltopper to ever lead the league in scoring was Jack Jennings in 1991-92 averaging 19.1 ppg
• During WKU's seven-game winning streak, Slaughter is contributing 19.7 ppg, 5.6 apg, and has nearly a three-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio
• Slaughter extended his double-digit scoring streak to 19 games
• Slaughter scored 13 points to give him 1,548 for his career, ranking 12th on the WKU all-time scoring list; next up is Chris Robinson (1993-96) at 1,656
• Tonight marked the 27th time in 32 games this season that either Slaughter or Steffphon Pettigrew has led the Hilltoppers in scoring
• With his two blocked shots tonight, senior Jeremy Evans, WKU's career blocked shots leader, increased his total to 218
• Evans scored five points to give him 1,053 for his career, ranking 38th on the WKU all-time scoring list; next up is Bobby Jackson (1961-63) at 1,060 points
• Evans passed Courtney Lee (2004-08) for the WKU all-time record in career starts with his 128th