On a night when Western Kentucky basketball paid homage to one of its greatest teams, the Hilltoppers put on a performance resonant of the old days by rolling Louisiana-Lafayette.
Despite a slow start, WKU (11-8, 5-3 Sun Belt Conference) dominated over the final 25 minutes to break a three-game losing streak by beating the Ragin’ Cajuns 72-49 on ’70s night at E.A. Diddle Arena.
“I’ll take a one or a two, 22 – I don’t care,” WKU coach Ray Harper said of the margin of victory. “We needed a win.”
The Hilltoppers, wearing replica jerseys from the 1971 Final Four team, held a 49-31 positive margin in rebounding and took advantage of ULL’s poor shooting (28.8 percent and 6 of 20 from 3-point range) to cruise in the second half.
The margin of victory was WKU’s largest in the series since 1993. Louisiana Lafayette’s point total was the least the Ragin’ Cajuns (7-13, 3-6 SBC) have scored this season and the fewest they have scored in a game against the Tops since 1942.
“Before every game, coach writes on the board, ‘defense and rebounding,’ ” walk-on freshman Percy Blade said. “We work on it every day in practice, so we really tied down and rebounded together as a team tonight.”
Blade was key to WKU’s team effort in which six players had at least five rebounds and four scored at least 10 points. Blade pulled down 10 rebounds to go along with five points.
After dropping three straight games in league play, the Hilltoppers got back on track with zone defense and a more concerted effort to attack the rim.
“What I told these kids is, ‘This is what we got. We can win with what we got, but we got to have production out of all of you,’ ” Harper said. “That’s what we got tonight. We got production out of everybody that stepped on the court.”
Senior Teeng Akol had his first career double-double with 13 points and a career-high 10 boards.
Sophomore George Fant had 10 points and six rebounds and sophomore guard T.J. Price had 13 points, five rebounds and three assists.
Junior guard Brandon Harris filled in again as starting point guard in place of the injured Jamal Crook, scoring 16 to lead all players, grabbing nine rebounds and dealing five assists.
“A win is a win,” Harris said. “I wouldn’t care if we won by one or 20. It’s still a ‘W’ in the win column.”
Western Kentucky trailed by as many as three in an ugly first half, but stormed into the break on a 16-2 run to put the game away.
Price tied the game at 19 with a triple and O’Karo Akamune scored off a long outlet pass from Price to make it 21-all.
Harris knocked down a long ball to make it 24-21, Akol finished a putback, Akamune scored another two and Aleksejs Rostov put back an offensive board to make it 30-21.
Another Akol bucket from the low post and a swat on the defensive end completed the half at 32-21 in favor of WKU.
Louisiana-Lafayette went the final 5:16 of the first 20 minutes without a point, and in the half, shot nine of 30 from the floor.
That drought continued early into the second half as Fant scored four straight to make it 36-21. Elfrid Payton’s jumper with 18:27 to play broke the ULL scoreless stretch, which amounted to 6 minutes and 49 seconds on the game clock. The Hilltoppers scored 17 straight points in that span and ULL missed nine shots in a row.
“I thought our guys did a good job of recognizing what we were trying to do,” Harper said of his team, which played zone defense for most of the game. “We knew we were going to be forced to play zone. We prepared for it and thought our guys did a great job with it.”
The lead went to 17 on a jumper from Blade at 40-23 with 17 minutes to go and then Fant finished from the right block with a nifty spin move at 42-23.
Akol knocked down a 3-pointer with 8:25 left to extend the lead to 55-30, WKU’s largest. The Cajuns could only get as close as 17 with 5:39 to go.
Payton had 14 for ULL and freshman Shawn Long had 14 rebounds and 11 points – the only two Lafayette players in double figures.
Western Kentucky returns to E.A. Diddle Arena to host Arkansas-Little Rock (11-9, 5-4 SBC) at 5 p.m. Saturday.
WKU 72 La.-Lafayette 49
LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE (7-13) Long 4-15 2-4 11, Moore 0-2 3-4 3, Payton 6-11 1-3 14, Wronkoski 1-5 0-0 2, Shepherd 3-12 0-0 9, Barnett 1-1 0-0 2, Soto 0-5 0-2 0, Thompson 2-6 3-3 8, Leblanc 0-2 0-0 0, Lazare 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 17-59 9-16 49. WESTERN KENTUCKY (11-8) Akamune 3-3 0-0 6, Fant 4-12 2-4 10, Rostov 1-5 5-6 7, Harris 4-9 7-8 16, Price 5-10 1-2 13, Sheldon 0-0 2-2 2, Blade 2-7 1-2 5, Akol 5-9 2-2 13, Drane 0-1 0-0 0, Vasquez 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-57 20-26 72. Halftime—W. Kentucky 32-21. 3-Point Goals—Louisiana-Lafayette 6-20 (Shepherd 3-6, Payton 1-1, Long 1-2, Thompson 1-5, Soto 0-3, Wronkoski 0-3), W. Kentucky 4-17 (Price 2-4, Akol 1-2, Harris 1-4, Vasquez 0-1, Blade 0-2, Rostov 0-4). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Louisiana-Lafayette 31 (Long 14), W. Kentucky 49 (Akol, Blade 10). Assists—Louisiana-Lafayette 8 (Moore, Payton 3), W. Kentucky 12 (Harris 5). Total Fouls—Louisiana-Lafayette 17, W. Kentucky 17. A—4,914.