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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Pettigrew raising the stakes at Western (02/27)

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By Greg Crews

 

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By GREG CREWS gcrews@thenewsenterprise.com BOWLING GREEN — Steffphon Pettigrew is a ‘tweener. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he’s too big to be a guard and too small to be a forward — at least that’s what schools like Kentucky and Louisville said. It was the biggest knock on the 2007 Kentucky Mr. Basketball coming out of Elizabethtown High School and it prevented major-conference schools from offering him scholarships. Now, as a sophomore at Western Kentucky, it has become his greatest strength. “No question. I saw that as an advantage from Day 1,” said first-year Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald. “I’ve been around a lot of ‘tweeners. The key is you have to find a way to create mismatches with them and still find a way for them to be comfortable.” Last season, Pettigrew seemed anything but comfortable. After playing in the post in high school, he struggled as then-coach Darrin Horn attempted to turn him into a guard. Pettigrew averaged just 3.8 points and 2.8 rebounds as a freshman, while playing 11 minutes per game. When McDonald took over in the offseason, after Horn accepted the head coaching job at South Carolina, he immediately saw Pettigrew’s potential to play forward. Pettigrew’s strength and toughness, McDonald felt, would be enough to make up for any size disadvantage he would have. “When I was a guard, he kept telling me to know the four position, just in case,” Pettigrew said. In the Hilltoppers’ fourth game of the season against Southern Illinois on Nov. 26, McDonald called for the switch and moved Pettigrew to power forward. Pettigrew responded by racking up 20 points and seven rebounds, crushing his previous career high of 11 points as he led Western Kentucky to a 79-70 win. “The fours that we had at the time weren’t playing hard enough, so I made the decision to put him down there and we’ve never looked back,” McDonald said. “He has set the bar for where we need to be as a team with his hard work and his consistency.” Since the move, Pettigrew has broken 20 points four times and even recorded his first double-double (17 points, 12 rebounds) in a win over then-No. 3 Louisville on Nov. 30. He is averaging 12.9 points and 5.2 rebounds per game this season, while hitting 45.3 percent (131-of-289) of his shots from the field and 37.6 percent (52-of-88) from behind the 3-point arc. In the last 16 games, he has been held to single-digit scoring only twice, while helping to lead the Hilltoppers (19-8) to a 13-3 record in the Sun Belt Conference, which they are on track to win for the second straight year. “He’s a mismatch nightmare,” said third-year Western Kentucky manager Chase Richardson, who was a teammate of Steffphon’s at Elizabethtown High School. “In the Sun Belt, he’s the scariest four-man you can have.” What makes him so scary for opponents? Simple. Since he doesn’t fit the usual mold for any position, it’s hard to find players that can guard him. He’s too strong for most guards and too fast for most post players. “When you’ve got bigger guys and they are trying to guard you outside, you can just take them off the bounce,” Pettigrew said. “Or sometimes they shield a bit longer on the screens and leave you open for the 3 and you can just knock that down. “I just try to use my versatility to my advantage.” For Pettigrew, it’s basically the same game plan he had in high school, when he scored more than 2,000 points and grabbed more than 1,000 rebounds in three years as a starter. “It takes a little pressure off him handling the ball and that helps with his confidence. It helps with who he’s having to score on and those types of things,” McDonald said. “His comfort level has really grown as the year has gone on.” Even when he’s battling with guys who are bigger than him by five inches and 50 pounds, Pettigrew is surprisingly comfortable. “In high school I played inside all the time, so I’m kind of used to playing inside and playing against bigger guys,” Pettigrew said. “I just try to get low. Big guys hate it when you get low on them.” Whatever the trick is, it seems to be working for Pettigrew, who has gone toe-to-toe with some of the premiere big men in the country and come out on top. “He’s a monster on defense,” Richardson said. “He is just doing the same stuff he did in high school and he’s working just as hard as he did back then.” And don’t expect Pettigrew to slow down any time soon. “If we make it back to the NCAA Tournament, then we’ll look back and say we accomplished something that we did last year,” Pettigrew said. “We just have to move forward, get back in the gym and get back to it. “You never want to be satisfied.” Greg Crews can be reached at 505-1754