Western Kentucky (13-18) vs. Denver (22-8)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Monday, March 5, 9:30 p.m. (ET)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Summit Arena (6,000) -- Hot Springs, Arkansas. Television: Sun Belt Network. Home Record: WKU 8-7, Denver 14-2. Away Record: WKU 3-8, Denver 7-6. Neutral Record: WKU 2-3, Denver 1-0. Conference Record: WKU 7-9, Denver 11-5. Series Record: Western Kentucky leads, 9-7.
GAME NOTES: In semifinal-round action of the 2012 Sun Belt Conference Tournament, the seventh-seeded Western Kentucky Hilltoppers will take on the third-seeded Denver Pioneers at Summit Arena in Hot Springs, Arkansas for the right to play for the championship on Tuesday.
Western Kentucky shocked No. 2 seed Arkansas-Little Rock in the quarterfinal round by mounting a late comeback to claim a 68-63 victory. The win marks the fourth straight for the Hilltoppers dating back to the regular season, and they improved their overall record to 13-18. A win tonight will send WKU to the title tilt for the eighth time in the past 14 years.
With a 61-50 win over sixth-seeded South Alabama in the quarterfinals, Denver continues to enhance the most impressive season in school history. The Pioneers have won five straight to lift their overall record to 22-8, the 22 wins being a school record. DU is now 9-11 in the SBC Tournament all-time, though with one more win it will advance to the championship round for just the second time, having lost to Louisiana back in 2005.
Denver has claimed the last four matchups against Western Kentucky, including a 78-65 triumph in the lone meeting this season. The Hilltoppers still hold the advantage in the all-time series however, 9-7.
Though Western Kentucky found itself down by 13 to UALR with 8:54 left to play in Sunday's quarterfinal matchup, it managed to storm all the way back for the five-point upset victory behind a monster performance from Derrick Gordon, who tallied 25 points and 15 rebounds, while George Fant added 13 points and Kahlil McDonald finished with 11. It wasn't pretty for the Hilltoppers, as they shot just 38.2 percent from the floor and 21-of-41 from the free-throw line, but it got the job done as they held the Trojans to 41.1 percent from the field. Gordon has been their best player all season, leading the squad in both scoring (11.7 ppg) and rebounding (6.3 rpg), while Fant is also a positive contributor at 9.6 ppg and 6.2 rpg. Despite its recent run of success, WKU still owns the Sun Belt's worst field goal percentage, connecting on only 39.4 percent from the floor on the year.
Denver shot 44.2 percent in the quarterfinal-round win over South Alabama, but the real story was how well the defense played as it held the Jaguars to just 36.2 percent shooting, including a mere 4-of-17 from three-point range. Brian Stafford and Rob Lewis shared the team-lead in the scoring in the win, knocking down 14 points, while Royce O'Neale tallied 11 points and 10 rebounds. Though their offensive numbers were slightly down on Sunday night, the Pioneers are typically one of the most efficient teams in the country, ranking ninth nationally in field goal percentage (.490) while knocking down an incredible 39.9 percent of their three-point shots. Chris Udofia (14.9 ppg, .537 FG percentage) and Stafford (14.3 ppg, .430 three-point FG percentage) give the team an effective one-two punch. As it showed in the win over USA, DU's defense has been spectacular all year as well, allowing just 60.7 ppg to its opponents. Udofia ranks second in the conference in blocks (2.4 bpg) and was named the Sun Belt's Defensive Player of the Year.
Both of these teams are red-hot, and though this type of showing may have been expected out of Denver, Western Kentucky has shocked many with its run this deep into the tournament. The Hilltoppers have confidence and are playing like they have nothing to lose, but the Pioneers have proven themselves throughout the season, and with that poise they have shown they will prevail and advance to the championship game.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Denver 75, Western Kentucky 70
03/05 10:33:29 ET