The Kentucky Wesleyan basketball team started the Drew Cooper era with a win at home Saturday. Under the new head coach, the Panthers overcame a slow start to earn an 85-63 victory over Kentucky State.
Deng Mayot, a junior from Brisbane, Australia, carried the load early, scoring 21 of 32 points in the first half for KWC (1-0). His 3-pointer and fast-break slam dunk in the final minute of the opening period also gave the Panthers their first lead of the game.
“I was my bouncing off my teammates’ energy and doing what I can to be able to finish my plays,” Deng said.
The second half was all about KWC. They opened with a bevy of scoring and finished 10-of-17 from 3-point range. Junior guard Adam Goetz nailed all five of his shots from deep to finish with 19 points, all coming in the second half.
Cooper said the run at the end of the first half was important for pulling away and putting together a strong finish.
“I was happy to see our guys settle in and get confidence in what we do as the game went on,” he said. “That run before halftime really set the tone and let our guys settle in a little bit and allowed them to execute a little bit more on both sides.”
Cooper said with only two returning players, it’s been tough to get everyone to gel and fall in line with the game plan. A few guys who were used to starting in high school are playing more secondary roles, but Cooper said they are just as important.
Especially after a pair of big exhibition losses to better competition, Cooper said the team needed the win.
“I thought it was very important that the guys saw that some of the things we’re trying to teach them and buy into can work,” he said. “They hadn’t seen what we do work, and I think that happened. We’re asking them to master a different role and understand that each specific person has a job to do and we need it done with enthusiasm if we’re going to make anything out of ourselves.”
Cooper was glad Mayot was there to keep the Panthers within striking distance early.
“Deng settled us down with his performance, there’s no question,” he said. “I don’t know how the game would have spun if he didn’t step up and make some plays.”
Mayot finished with 29 points and 10 rebounds. Goetz added seven assists. Junior guard Erik Ball chipped in 10 points and three assists off the bench.
Mayot said once his team full of newcomers settled in, it didn’t take much to get on a hot streak.
“I don’t think we changed anything,” he said. “It was the first time some of us have seen that type of competition before. When it came to playing senior players, their guys were just smarter and able to start the game better than us. Once we started to get the hang of it, it was easy to just be able to play confident and do what you do best.”
The Panthers will now turn their attention to Wednesday, when they host No. 1 Bellarmine at 7 p.m.
As a former assistant there, Cooper knows what to expect, and he said it’s a program he tries to imitate.
“In terms of their togetherness and they way their program is run — outside the lines even more than inside — that’s what we’re trying to mirror,” he said. “(Head coach Scott Davenport) has a tremendous model. His model for how it’s supposed to be done, in my world, it’s perfect.”