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Western Kentucky vs North Texas

WKU stuns N. Texas for Sun Belt title

CBSSports.com wire reports
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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- 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 over North Texas on Tuesday night 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.

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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 under their former assistant before closing the regular season with three wins in four games.

Not even Harper could see a run coming like what Western Kentucky did in the Sun Belt tournament. The No. 7 seed won four games in four days, giving them six wins in a row and setting the stage for their unexpected return to the NCAAs.

They did so by defeating No. 10 seed Florida International, second-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock and No. 3 Denver, along with the fifth-seeded Mean Green.

"I need a day off," Harper joked. "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."

Tony Mitchell scored 18 points to lead North Texas (18-14), which was playing in its third straight league championship game and fourth in six years. Alzee Williams added 16 points, Brandon Walton had 14 and Jacob Holmen 11.

The Mean Green appeared in control midway through the second half, taking a 55-42 lead after a Tyler Hall jumper.

Fant scored the next seven points for the Hilltoppers to cut the deficit to six. Western Kentucky then tied the game at 59 on a basket by Akol, but it fell behind by five after Mitchell put North Texas up 66-61.

Western Kentucky, however, wouldn't be denied - rallying once again for the win. It's the second straight championship game loss for North Texas, which lost to Arkansas-Little Rock last year on a 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds remaining.

"Anytime you have an opportunity like this, to win a championship and to move on to the NCAA tournament, I think you cherish those opportunities," North Texas coach Johnny Jones said. "To be here the last couple of years and not get it is disappointing, but I have to applaud our guys and the character of them for getting us to this point."

The Hilltoppers lost to the Mean Green 84-67 on Jan. 12, their second game with Harper as coach. Very little about Tuesday night resembled the first meeting.

A freshman had led Western Kentucky in scoring in 21 of its last 24 games before Akol's performance. The Hilltoppers had used 14 different starting lineups this season through the leadership change, but they put the pieces together for four days.

"This is a basketball team that was ready to play from the jump," North Texas junior Roger Franklin said. "Obviously, throughout the tournament, they knocked off Arkansas-Little Rock and they had a little bit of composure about themselves.

"They just wanted it more tonight."

Copyright 2014 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.
 
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Jamal Cook drives for a bucket as the Hilltoppers earn a trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009. (US Presswire)
Jamal Cook drives for a bucket as the Hilltoppers earn a trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009. (US Presswire)
Scoreboard
Western Kentucky (15-18) «304474
North Texas (18-14)323870
WKY:T. Akol 23 Pts
WKY:G. Fant 6 Reb
WKY:J. Crook 2 Ast
NTX:T. Mitchell 18 Pts
NTX:K. Hogans 6 Reb
NTX:J. Holmen 3 Ast

Related Video

 
PLAYERS OF THE GAME
Western KentuckyNorth Texas
WKY
Teeng Akol
NTX
Tony Mitchell
PtsRebsAstPtsRebsAst
23511851
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
T. Akol, F339-115-651123
G. Fant, F326-105-561217
D. Gordon, G383-91-25148
T. Price, G322-70-14226
J. Crook, G262-80-02204
K. McDonald252-98-842114
O. Akamune81-10-04022
V. Zollo60-20-04010
Totals 25-5719-223691374
 43.9%86.4% 
North Texas Mean Green
T. Mitchell, F327-133-351418
J. Holmen, F294-152-243411
R. Franklin, F193-70-05246
A. Williams, G386-114-663016
B. Walton, G325-92-322214
K. Hogans200-10-06120
T. Hall172-30-02305
T. Norris100-10-00010
N. Stojiljkovic30-10-00020
Totals 27-6111-1433151970
 44.3%78.6% 
Conference USA
TeamConf. W-LTot. W-LRPI Rank
Old Dominion0-09-116
La. Tech0-08-3227
UTEP0-07-452
North Texas0-06-4235
Middle Tenn.0-07-5164
FAU0-05-4208
Charlotte0-06-544
FIU0-06-6126
So. Miss0-05-5316
Western Ky.0-05-5122
UT-San Antonio0-04-5268
Marshall0-04-7275
UAB0-04-7309
Rice0-03-6350

Sun Belt
TeamConf. W-LTot. W-LRPI Rank
Ga. Southern0-06-2116
Georgia St.0-07-339
Texas St.0-06-3207
UT-Arlington0-06-4108
Troy0-05-4346
UL Lafayette0-06-5318
UL-Monroe0-06-5264
Arkansas St.0-04-4281
UALR0-04-5319
App. St.0-03-6224
S. Alabama0-02-7343