HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Even in the smallest of gyms, the Toppers sensed they were playing on their biggest stage yet on Saturday night.
And after 20 minutes, they finally showed it.
Western (20-12, 12-6 Sun Belt Conference) overcame a shaky first half to pull away from New Orleans, notching an 83-58 win in the first round of the Sun Belt tournament.
In front of just a few hundred fans at the Hot Springs Convention Center Court — with an overwhelming majority of them wearing Western red — junior forward Sergio Kerusch said the raised, green seats, low ceiling and small-time atmosphere turned out to be a positive.
“It was different, but we had a great crowd — plus we had great fan support,” Kerusch said. “It made us feel right back at home, so this is like a Diddle (Arena) on the road.”
The No. 4-seeded Toppers — who reached 20 wins for the 40th time in program history with the win — will next face No. 5 seed Arkansas State in the quarterfinal round of the Sun Belt tournament at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, this time at Summit Arena.
Western beat the Red Wolves both at home and on the road already this season, but Head Coach Ken McDonald said he’s not concerned with who the Toppers’ next opponent is — so long as they have a next opponent.
“I told the guys to put their hand up — put a one up after the game,” McDonald said. “One game down, and all we have is one left, and that’s the way we have to act. We have to have that sense of urgency. We have to understand that everything we want is right in front of us if we just take care of one game.
“And that’s how we’re going to treat it.”
Senior guard A.J. Slaughter hit a pair of 3-pointers out of the half to give New Orleans (8-22, 3-16 Sun Belt) its biggest deficit of the game at 37-25, and things only got worse for the Privateers.
New Orleans pulled to within nine points with 13:37 to play, but Western tacked up a margin the Privateers couldn’t match only a few minutes later. A 17-0 run over the course of five minutes pushed the Toppers’ lead out to 75-46 with just under three minutes to play.
Slaughter thanked a conversation in the locker room for the runaway victory.
“We talked about just the position we were in — kind of the same situation as last year being up at the half,” Slaughter said. “Just doing it with our defense — that’s basically what we talked about at halftime.”
Slaughter said Western started taking only what the defense would give up, leading him to finish with 13 points, Kerusch with 16 and junior forward Steffphon Pettigrew to score a team-high 18 points. The Toppers shot 67.9 percent from the field in the second half and 56.4 percent for the game.
New Orleans sophomore guard Charles Carmouche led all scorers with 21 points.
The lead changed five times in the first half before Western spurted out to a 31-25 advantage at the break. Once the lead jumped past 10 in the second half, McDonald looked to his bench for relief.
After explaining what it meant to follow five starters with Sun Belt tournament rings onto the court, McDonald said he was impressed with how the backups fared.
“I think it’s huge, because we’re going to need them at some point throughout this tournament if we’re going to make a run,” McDonald said.
Freshman guard Caden Dickerson played 17 minutes, junior forward Cliff Dixon played 15 minutes and freshman guard Jamal Crook logged eight — all off the bench.
With less than 24 hours before another one-and-done tournament game, McDonald said the Toppers now have to prepare for a fresh gameplan.
“We’ve got to lock into the scouting report,” McDonald said “If it’s a game of matchups, we’re going to have to get our personnel back in tact tonight and understand we’re going to have to play good basketball.”