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By NATHANIEL BRYAN firstname.lastname@example.org
BOWLING GREEN — Junior guard A.J. Slaughter led five Western Kentucky players in double figures with 17 points as the homestanding Hilltoppers beat Sun Belt Conference rival Louisiana-Lafayette, 73-68 on Thursday night.
Junior center Jeremy Evans added 16 points and seven rebounds for the Hilltoppers (13-6), while senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez had 13 points and five assists and sophomore forward Steffphon Pettigrew, a former Elizabethtown High School star, had 10 points and three rebounds.
Sophomore wing Sergio Kerusch, the conference’s reigning Player of the Week, added 11 points and seven rebounds off the bench.
It was the fourth consecutive victory for the Hilltoppers, who are 7-1 in conference play for the third time in four seasons. Western Kentucky also moved 9-0 at home this season with its 24th win in its last 25 games at Diddle Arena.
Chris Gradnigo scored 13 of the Ragin’ Cajuns’ first 23 points, but scored just two points in the final 6 minutes of the first half. The sophomore forward led all scorers with 23 points, which surpassed his previous season high of 20 points and were two points from matching his career high.
Junior guard Ryan McCoy had 17 points and a game-high three steals off the bench for the Ragin’ Cajuns (6-12, 3-4), while junior wing La’Ryan Gary added 10 points and six rebounds.
The Hilltoppers took a pair of 14-point leads in the second half and still led by 12 points with less than 7 minutes remaining in the game. The Ragin’ Cajuns rallied to pull within 66-63 on a steal and dunk by McCoy, who added a layup in the final 25 seconds to stay within three points of the Hilltoppers at 71-68.
However, junior guard Anthony Sally knocked down two free throws on the Hilltoppers’ next possession and Western Kentucky rebounded a 3-pointer by Louisiana-Lafayette junior guard Randell Daingle with 14 seconds left to seal the win.
Louisiana-Lafayette, which has lost its last five meetings against the Hilltoppers, finally cooled off from the 3-point line. The Ragin’ Cajuns averaged nearly 10 made 3s their previous seven contests, but went just 6-of-19 from the arc against the Hilltoppers. Western Kentucky, the conference leader in 3-point percentage, made eight of its 18 3-point attempts.
Nathaniel Bryan can be reached at 505-1758