HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Teams that surrender 14-point leads, that trail almost a full second half, that get beat on the glass by more than 10 rebounds don’t usually win.
But most teams don’t have an A.J. Slaughter.
The senior guard hit a pair of clutch 3-pointers inside of two minutes to go Sunday night to push Western (21-12) past Arkansas State at Summit Arena, 65-64, and on to the semifinal round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
“I didn’t want to let my team down, and I didn’t want to let myself down,” Slaughter said. “This is not how I envisioned going out my senior year, and I just wanted to try my best to put the ball in the basket and it fell for me. I just wanted to let everyone know we’re here to stay.”
Less than a month ago, it was Slaughter who scored 13 points in overtime at Arkansas State to knock of the Red Wolves.
This time around, Head Coach Ken McDonald said he heard Slaughter deliver a message to the Toppers, who trailed by as many as nine points in the second half, that Western wouldn’t be going home early.
But it was Slaughter who ultimately ensured his senior season would last at least one more day.
“One thing you love about A.J. if you’re around him, he always wants the ball in clutch situations,” McDonald said. “He doesn’t shy away from that light at all, and he continually gets it done … He’s willing to go out there and lay it on the line.”
Slaughter finished with a game-high 28 points — just three away from his career high — besting Arkansas State freshman guard Brandon Reed’s 17 points. Fourteen of those points came in a first half that saw Western jump ahead 9-0, absorb an Arkansas State run back, and go up 35-21 with 3:59 to play.
The Red Wolves (17-14) finished the half on an 11-0 run, clawing back into the game in front of an Arkansas State-leaning crowd, to head into the locker room down just three points. Arkansas State continued that run into the second half, eventually taking its first lead with 16:25 to play.
At that point, the Toppers were getting out-muscled in the paint — where they ultimately claimed 24 rebounds to the Red Wolves’ 37 — and needed a lift. Junior forward Steffphon Pettigrew said Western got it in the form of senior forward Jeremy Evans.
“Jeremy helped me a lot down the stretch,” Pettigrew said. “He’s a shot blocker, and when it was time to step up, he stepped up.”
Evans finished with six points and three blocks, and Western ultimately matched Arkansas State in the paint at 30 points apiece.
The Toppers also completed a nine-point comeback to match the Red Wolves on the scoreboard when Slaughter drained a 3-pointer with 1:28 to play. Arkansas State freshman guard Trey Finn missed the front end of a one-and-one on the other end, and Slaughter sank the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds on the clock.
The Toppers next meet top-seeded Troy on Monday night at 6 p.m., but before then, McDonald said Western has work to do in restoring its lineup. Only seven Toppers played more than a minute against Troy.
“We want to … get some of these other guys back in the fold and feeling good about themselves. That will be tonight,” McDonald said. “We’re on cloud nine right now, and we’re not going to come off that cloud with our energy and our effort and our attitude.”