An automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament hangs in the balance tonight, as the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers challenge the North Texas Mean Green in the title game of the 36th annual Sun Belt Conference Tournament in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
The seventh seed in this year's tourney, the Hilltoppers have taken home the trophy more often than any other member of the league, winning a total of seven titles. Western Kentucky, which last won it all in 2009 with a 64-56 win over South Alabama, appeared in the first round of the event on Saturday and defeated FIU by a 67-63 score. A day later, WKU delivered a 68-63 upset over second-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock, and then last night the team dismissed third-seeded Denver, 67-63.
As for the fifth-seeded Mean Green, they are playing in the championship game for the third straight year, having lost to UALR a season ago (64-63) after defeating Troy in 2010 (66-63). North Texas, which has two crowns altogether from this tourney, topped Louisiana in the quarterfinals on Sunday, 65-62, and then slipped by Arkansas State, 76-72, in the semis last night in order to advance.
These teams met just once during the regular season, with the Mean Green posting an 84-67 win in Denton, Texas back on Jan. 12 which means the all-time series now favors the Hilltoppers by a count of 12-5.
The squads also clashed in last year's SBC Tournament where UNT cranked out an 81-62 victory.
In last night's tight game with Denver, the Hilltoppers went from leading by eight points with just under 13 minutes to play in the first half to trailing by five barely five minutes later, but in the end WKU came up big when it needed to. The squad shot 55.9 percent from the floor for the game, including 5-of-8 behind the three-point line, and also converted 24-of-34 at the free- throw line, compared to the Pioneers who made only half as many at the charity stripe. George Fant tied for the game high with 19 points, while Kahlil McDonald was again solid off the bench with 14 points as he sank 3-of-4 shots from the perimeter. WKU hasn't been much of an offensive team this season, scoring just 64.8 ppg, due to the fact that the unit is shooting just 39.5 percent from the floor and 30.7 percent on the perimeter, so Monday's night's performance from an accuracy standpoint was not the norm. Fant is one of two players scoring in double figures this year, his 10.1 ppg second only to Derrick Gordon (11.9 ppg) who made good on just 36.5 percent of his field goal chances.
Even though the Mean Green and Arkansas State exchanged the lead 10 times and played to a tie on nine other occasions, ASU never led by more than three points. Every starter for North Texas stepped up and played hard at the offensive end of the floor, each scoring in double figures as they followed the lead set by Jacob Holmen who tallied 21 points, thanks to a perfect 5-of-5 shooting behind the three-point line. Alzee Williams chipped in 12 points, Brandan Walton and Tony Mitchell 11 apiece and Roger Franklin 10 points as the team shot an impressive 58.7 percent from the field. Even though he has appeared in just 22 games, Mitchell is still the top performer in the paint for UNT with team highs of 14.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per contest, his 68 blocked shots also a team-best. The only other active double-digit scorer is Alzee Williams with 10.3 ppg and the fact that the Mean Green have gotten this far after suspending both Chris Jones (14.1 ppg, 81 assists) and Jordan Williams (10.9 ppg) after only 19 games due to academics is rather remarkable.