Hot Springs, AR – The sixth-seeded Western Kentucky Hilltoppers try to win their second consecutive Sun Belt Conference Tournament title on Monday night, as they square off against the FIU Panthers, with the winner advancing to the NCAA Tournament.
Last season, WKU showed its ability to shock the SBC by navigating through the tournament and coming out the champion as the No. 7 seed, and the squad is playing a similar tune this time around. After beating ULM in the first round (74-60), it went on to upset third-seeded South Alabama in the quarterfinals (62-59) and second-seeded Arkansas State in the semis (58-56) to improve to 19-15 on the season. The Hilltoppers have been the most successful team in SBC Tournament history with eight championships.
After defeating fifth-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock in the quarterfinal round (69-54), FIU pulled off a shocking upset in the semifinals by taking down top- seeded Middle Tennessee, 61-57, ending the Blue Raiders' 17-game winning streak and possibly ruining their NCAA Tournament dreams. The Panthers' impressive season soldiers on, as they have now won five of their last six games to improve to 18-13 overall. FIU is searching for its first-ever SBC Tournament championship.
WKU has dominated the all-time series with FIU, 29-6. The teams split the season series, with each winning at home.
WKU trailed in the final minute against ASU, but T.J. Price made a steal and converted a layup with 19 seconds left to lift his team to the dramatic victory, its second straight one-possession win earned in the final minute of the game in this tournament. The Hilltoppers had a rough time shooting the ball, making just 34.6 percent from the field, but fortunately they played outstanding team defense, holding ASU under 37 percent shooting while forcing 18 turnovers. Price was outstanding on the night, finishing with 24 points and seven rebounds while making all seven of his free-throw attempts. Brandon Harris came off the bench to contribute 11 points and seven rebounds. On the season, WKU has a modest offense, scoring just over 67 ppg, but it holds opponents under 66 ppg. Price has been strong at both ends of the court, netting 15.5 ppg and 1.1 spg. George Fant is solid down low with 12.8 ppg and 6.6 rpg, while Jamal Crook adds 11.8 ppg and 4.2 apg to the mix.
FIU led for nearly the entire game in its semifinal-round matchup, including by 11 points early in the second half, and just when it looked like Middle Tennessee was primed to recover by cutting its deficit to just two points in the final minute, Malik Smith iced the game with a 2-of-2 showing at the foul line with seven seconds remaining to give the Panthers the unlikely victory. FIU shot just 33.3 percent from the field, but made up for it with a strong 18-of-22 showing from the stripe, and more impressively it held an efficient Blue Raiders squad below 38 percent shooting. Deric Hill led the way with 16 points and six assists, Cameron Bell netted 15 points off the bench, and Smith poured in 14 points. FIU has been a strong scoring squad all season, putting up 70.0 ppg, and it is paced by First Team All-SBC selection Tymell Murphy, who tallies 15.0 ppg (on 58.9 percent from the field), 6.7 rpg, 1.8 spg and 1.1 bpg. Jerome Frink (10.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg) joins Murphy in the frontcourt, while Smith (14.1 ppg) and Bell (8.2 ppg) do their damage out on the perimeter.