Selection Sunday will be a lot more fun for Cleveland State this year.
Unlike a year ago, when the Vikings waited in vain for a possible at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, their 57-54 victory over No. 16 Butler on Tuesday night in the championship game of the Horizon League tournament assured them an automatic berth in the NCAAs.
"It's a lot of pressure off. I always remember last year when I got hurt, that was always lingering in my mind about `What if?' _ maybe something would have happened," Cleveland State senior Cedric Jackson said. "But last year was a great experience for me. Coming into this game I was a lot more relaxed and ready to lead this team."
Jackson left last year's Horizon championship game against Butler early in the second half with an ankle injury. He had only four points and three rebounds in that loss to the Bulldogs.
This time, he had 19 points and seven rebounds and keyed a flurry of 3-pointers in the second half that erased an 8-point Butler lead. The win guaranteed the Vikings their first NCAA bid since 1986, when they were seeded 14th and knocked off Bob Knight's Indiana Hoosiers and made the regional semifinals.
"It feels so good. I've waited four years, five years, it's so amazing, just to get this championship," said Jackson, who was voted the Horizon tournament MVP. "It means the world to me. This team has stuck together day in and day out."
Six of Cleveland State's (25-10) first seven field goals in the second half were 3-pointers. Butler's last lead was 48-47 midway through the period, then Jackson hit a 3-pointer and a floater in the lane to put the Vikings in front for good. Butler had two chances to tie it in the closing seconds, but Shelvin Mack and Gordon Hayward missed 3-pointers.
Mack, a freshman, led Butler with 18 points.
"It really wasn't the game plan," Jackson said of the 3-pointers. "It was about being aggressive and knowing when to step up and make plays. We started out slow and Butler was sagging off me, so I had to step up and just count on that shot to go in. I took a few bad shots, but my teammates helped me out on the defensive end, and that was the most important part."
Cleveland State lost twice to the Bulldogs in the regular season. Butler, ranked in the Top 25 most of the season, is expected to receive an at-large NCAA bid.
"I feel really good. ... You feel better when you're on the victor side," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "But I told our guys in the locker room that the last time we lost in the (Horizon) championship, we made it to the (NCAA) Sweet 16. It's a totally different story when you get into postseason play."
It's the first conference tournament title in coach Gary Waters' three seasons at Cleveland State.
"It's fabulous," said Waters, who also took Kent State to the NCAAs in 2001. "This is something we've been dreaming of, and now we don't have to dream any longer. Now Cleveland State is on the map."
In other conference tournament championship games:
N. Dakota St. 66, Oakland, Mich. 64
At Sioux Falls, S.D., Ben Woodside made a 17-foot jumper with 3 seconds left to give North Dakota State the Summit League championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
No. 1 seed NDSU (26-6) trailed much of the game _ by 14 points in the first half _ and needed a rally in the final five minutes to earn an NCAA bid in its first year of Division I eligibility.
Oakland (22-12) tied it at 64 on Keith Benson's dunk with 12 seconds left. Rather than calling time out, North Dakota State rushed downcourt and set up a screen for Woodside, who smoothly sank a shot from the top of the key.
W. Kentucky 64, S. Alabama 56
At Hot Springs, Ark., A.J. Slaughter scored 18 points, and Western Kentucky earned an NCAA tournament berth with a win in the Sun Belt tournament championship game.
The Hilltoppers (24-8) wasted a 15-point first-half lead and trailed 43-39 in the second. Slaughter put Western Kentucky back ahead 44-43 with a 3-pointer, part of a decisive 14-3 run that assured the Hilltoppers their 21st NCAA tournament berth.
Western Kentucky reached the round of 16 last year and provided one of the tournament's most spectacular plays when Ty Rogers sank a desperation 3-pointer over three defenders to beat Drake in the first round.
South Alabama (20-13) trailed 27-12 early on and 35-25 at halftime before a big run to start the second half. DeAndre' Coleman led the Jaguars with 27 points.
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