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March 8, 2009HOT SPRINGS, Ark.- As WKU coach Ken McDonald promised late last week, it was a physical game between the Toppers and Florida International. Just ask junior forward Jeremy Evans.
With 4:51 left in the game and WKU up by ten, Golden Panthers freshman center Freddy Asprilla hit the floor after going for a rebound. Evans grabbed it, as Asprilla tugged on Evans' ankle. Evans took offense and had to be restrained by his teammates, as Asprilla was whistled for an intentional foul.
From there, the momentum belonged to the Toppers, who cruised late to a 66-48 win in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
"The whole game, I was just trying to keep my composure," Evans said. "My teammates and coach was on me just to stay down. I believe they were holding me about the whole game. That just done it. After that, they just told me to stay calm and keep playing and know what we was playing for."
FIU began the game hot from the outside. Though the Golden Panthers had made only nine of 28 shots at halftime, five had been three-pointers. They made just one three-pointer in the second half.
But for as physical a game as it was at times, the Toppers held tough. They held a massive 51-34 rebounding advantage and forced 15 turnovers, while committing 11 themselves.
"We talked about gang rebounding as one of our keys," McDonald said. "With the physical play and the blocking out, a lot of times those inside guys just had to block out and maybe couldn't go running for the rebound because it was so physical. We wanted our guards to come down and we wanted five guys in the paint all the time on the rebounding front."
For WKU, it was also about adjustments at halftime.
Senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez led all scorers with 18 points, 13 after the intermission.
"I think we kinda lost our focus, as far as game plan and as far as personnel," he said. "We got caught up helping out too much on the big guys. In the second half, we talked about it and A.J. (Slaughter) and everyone, just talked about a way to hold each other accountable. We went out in the second half and really focused on coming off the staggers, coming on strong and not giving up on the play."
Mendez-Valdez also demonstrated the Toppers' unselfish attitude after the game. Though he was named the MVP of the game, he gave his award to sophomore forward D.J. Magley, who finished with three points in 15 minutes off the bench, but was instrumental in the win, also with seven rebounds.
"I really think that the minutes that he played were really key," Mendez-Valdez said. "he came in and defended. He held Freddy to eight points. That was accounting for all the bigs. I thought he had good rebounds and good decisions passing back out or taking when he had it. He was just playing really well for us and I strongly believe that he deserved it."
WKU will try to continue its hard-nosed mentality tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. in the semi-finals against the winner of the North Texas and Middle Tennessee matchup. The game will be televised on ESPN Plus, locally in Bowling Green on WKYU-Channel 11.
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