HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — The Hilltoppers are going dancing – and they’re moving to a song only they can hear.
In a storybook season that refuses to die, Western Kentucky (15-18) won a Sun Belt Conference championship Tuesday night, defeating North Texas 74-70 in another improbable victory on the road to a title.
Facing another double-digit deficit in the second half to a higher-seeded team and left for dead for seemingly the third straight night, WKU found a way again.
“I’m just happy for these young men,” WKU coach Ray Harper said. “We’ve put in a lot of hard work. There were days when I told them, ‘I know you think I’m crazy because of how hard we’re working, but we’re preparing ourselves for an opportunity that’s going to present itself here in a couple months.’ Give them credit, they bought in to what we were telling them. I knew when we left Bowling Green, Ky. – and I’ve said this to you guys that have been there with me every day – I knew we had a chance and in this profession, this business, that’s all you ask.”
On Sunday it was an 11-point deficit to Arkansas-Little Rock, on Monday it was a five-point deficit to Denver and Tuesday it was 13 points to UNT (18-14) with 12:45 to play.
But this team won’t be put down and now moves on to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009. The Tops’ tournament title is its eighth in the last 20 years. The team was 5-14 on Jan. 21 but enters the NCAA tourney with a six-game winning streak – its longest since the end of 2010.
The Hilltoppers also became the second team in Sun Belt tournament history to win four games in four days. The NCAA tournament appearance will be the program’s 22nd.
“This season’s been unbelievable,” WKU freshman George Fant said. “A coaching change (WKU fired Ken McDonald on Jan. 6) and all these freshmen coming in and coming out here and playing so hard for coach Harp, everyone stepping up for us. Everyone was down on us before we got here. They were saying we weren’t old enough, mature enough, we couldn’t guard some of the people that we obviously guarded here. As far as my emotions when the confetti popped out, I couldn’t even tell you right now. It was just tremendous. I’m so happy.”
Fant was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and joined freshman Derrick Gordon and senior Kahlil McDonald on the all-tournament team.
Fant finished with 17 points and six boards, McDonald had 14 points and Gordon had eight points, five rebounds and two steals.
Teeng Akol came out of nowhere to score a career-high 23 points.
It was McDonald, though, who provided the heroics. His 3 with 1:06 left after a loose ball scramble gave WKU a 70-68 lead. His two free throws with WKU up 72-70 and 1.5 seconds showing on the clock iced the game.
“I just had to knock ’em down to end it, man,” he said after taking a hug from WKU athletic director Ross Bjork and standing alone at midcourt. “I’m speechless right now. I said it before we came to the tournament. I said, ‘Yo, we gettin’ a ring!’ As hard as we worked, we deserve it and I just thank God.”
Both teams played championship-caliber basketball at the outset, combining to make 10 of the game’s first 19 shots. T.J. Price hit two 3s – the second of which gave WKU a 12-10 lead – while four UNT players scored.
North Texas took the lead away and extended it to five after a long rebound and breakaway for Alzee Williams, making it 25-20.
The Mean Green couldn’t get ahead much further than that, and despite WKU turning the ball over three straight times down 30-28, Akol tied the game at 30 on a pair of free throws.
The Tops also had a chance to tie or take the lead down 32-30 before the half, but after Jamal Crook ate some clock at the top of the key, he passed off to McDonald in the right corner, who stepped out of bounds with six seconds left.
Williams’ runner at the buzzer was no good, and that’s how the score remained after 20 minutes.
The teams traded scores over the first five minutes of the second half until a 12-0 run by UNT. Brandan Walton started the surge with a 3 from the right side, Tony Mitchell converted a three-point play and Walton hit a fall-away jumper from the left baseline.
Roger Franklin and Tyler Hall added buckets after that to complete the run and give UNT a 55-42 lead.
The Tops countered with a 9-0 run to get within 55-51 after seven straight from Fant and an Akol putback.
McDonald dropped a 3 from the top of the key to make it 57-54, but when a Williams three-point play made it 64-59, it looked as though WKU was down for the count with less than four minutes to play.
They got back up.
Mitchell scored 18 to lead UNT, Williams had 16, Walton had 14 and Jacob Holmen added 11. The Mean Green, playing in their third straight SBC title game, were outrebounded 20-13 in the second half.
The Hilltoppers, who arrive back in town at 4 p.m. today at the Carroll Knicely Center on Nashville Road, await their tournament fate, which will be announced at 5 p.m. Sunday on CBS.
“I’ll tell you this – wherever we’re seeded, those higher-seeded teams, they could get a lot better draw than playing us right now,” Harper said. “We’ve won six in a row. We’re not going to back down from anyone. We’ll respect whomever we play, but we’re not going to fear anyone.”