‘Toppers Top FIU For Second Straight Sun Belt Title
Last year, Western Kentucky caught fire at the end of the season and ignited their way through four wins in four days to win the Sun Belt’s automatic NCAA bid.
This year, the Hilltoppers battled through injuries and played .500 ball in the league. But seeded sixth, WKU navigated its side of the bracket and earned a trip to the finals.
And, MIddle Tennessee wasn’t there to spoil the party.
Western Kentucky is on its way to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season, defeating upstart Florida International 65-63 in the finals of the Sun Belt tournament in Hot Springs, AR.
FIU (18-14), the #4 seed, had suffered through twelve straight losing seasons. But the Panthers, under first year coach Richard Pitino, shocked heavily favored MTSU to earn a spot in the championship game for the first time since joining the Sun Belt.
But the Panthers had no answer for George Fant, the Bowling Green native who finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds in the title game
. Guard Jamal Crook also had 17 points, shooting 9-13 from the free throw line. Brandon Harris came off the bench to add 12 points for WKU, who gave Coach Ray Harper his second tournament title in as many appearances.
FIU simply couldn’t overcome 38.7 percent shooting (24-62) from the field. The Panthers led in the first half, but WKU battled back to take a two point lead at halftime. The Panthers stayed close, but never could get the lead down the stretch.
The Panthers were paced by guard Cameron Bell, who came off the bench to score 15 points. Malik Smith added 14 points, while freshman Jerome Frink added 13. First team all conference performer Tymell Murphy notched a double double with eleven points and ten rebounds, but make only 5-13 from the floor.
Western Kentucky won the game by getting to the free throw line. The Hilltoppers made 13-19 free throws while FIU was just 8-9.