Hilltoppers stun Sun Belt

Sub-.500 team earns NCAA bid
March 7, 2012 12:00 am

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Teeng Akol found himself on the bottom of Western Kentucky's midcourt dogpile inside Summit Arena.

The Hilltoppers' junior didn't mind in the least.

Akol scored 23 points and George Fant added 17 as Western Kentucky kept its dancing shoes on for a little while longer, earning a 74-70 win against North Texas in the championship game of the Sun Belt conference tournament.

The win capped a stunning run for the Hilltoppers (15-18), who earned their first NCAA tournament berth since 2009 by winning four games in as many days.

It also caps a roller-coaster season during which Western Kentucky survived a midseason coaching change and the development of several key freshmen.

"I'm so happy I can't even begin to describe how I'm feeling right now," Akol said.

The Hilltoppers' rocky season continued Tuesday night, with the Mean Green (18-14) leading by as many as 13 points in the second half.

Just as it had done throughout the Sun Belt tournament, Western Kentucky rallied.

The Hilltoppers took the lead for good at 70-68 after a 3-pointer by Kahlil McDonald, who finished with 14 points. McDonald then hit the clinching free throws to send the Hilltoppers to the most unexpected of NCAA tournament berths.

"This season has been unbelievable," Fant said. "A coaching change. ... Everyone was down on us before we got out here, saying we weren't old enough, mature enough, we couldn't guard some of the people we obviously guarded here.

"It speaks for itself."

Western Kentucky began the season 5-11, resulting in the firing of former coach Ken McDonald on Jan. 5.

The firing came one day after a chaotic loss in which Louisiana-Lafayette played the final possession of the overtime game with six players.

Ray Harper was named the Hilltoppers' interim coach, and they responded with a 3-6 start, but closed the regular season with three wins in four games.

"I need a day off," Harper said, joking. "I'm just happy for these young men. We put in a lot of hard work.

"I knew we had a chance. In this profession, that's all you ask. Give me an opportunity and we'll see what happens."

Other tournament

• Big Sky: Damian Lillard had 22 points and Weber State (24-5) outscored Portland State (17-14) 11-1 in the final 4:59 for a 69-63 victory in a Big Sky semifinal in Missoula, Mont. Gelaun Wheelwright scored 15 points and Kyle Tresnak 10 for the No. 2-seeded Wildcats, who will play top-seeded Montana or No. 4 seed Eastern Washington in the championship game.

First Published 2012-03-06 23:20:58

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