Hot Springs, AR – Western Kentucky completed another improbable run to the NCAA Tournament on Monday, as George Fant's 17-point, 13-rebound effort led the Hilltoppers past the FIU Golden Panthers, 65-63, in the finals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
A year after winning the conference tourney as a No. 7 seed, the Hilltoppers captured the crown seeded sixth, winning four games in four days to earn the program's 23rd trip to the NCAA Tournament and fourth in the past six years.
Jamal Crook also scored 17 points for Western Kentucky (20-15) and made critical free throws down the stretch to seal the win. Brandon Harris added 12 points -- all on 3-pointers -- for the victors.
"It was a heck of a game; we knew it was going to be that way," Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper said. "But our guys, they continued to believe, they continued to fight and once again made plays down the stretch."
FIU (18-14), which took down a 28-win Middle Tennessee squad in the semis as the No. 4 seed, was vying for its second NCAA Tournament bid and first since 1995. But the Panthers shot just 39 percent from the floor to fall short in Richard Pitino's first year as their head coach.
"We were probably a little tired; we had such a war last night," Pitino said of his team upending Middle Tennessee in the semis. "Certainly, it hurts pretty bad right now."
Cameron Bell led the Panthers with 15 points, Malik Smith chipped in 14 and Jerome Frink checked in with 13 in the loss.
The Hilltoppers never trailed in the second half, though FIU was within one, 49-48, with eight minutes to play.
After Deric Hill missed a potential go-ahead jumper, Western Kentucky went on an 8-2 run, with Harris' corner 3-pointer yielding a 57-50 cushion with under five minutes remaining.
Buckets by Bell and Hill cut the deficit to three, but Bell's finger roll the next time down fell off the rim. After Fant bullied his way inside for a deuce, Bell was off the mark on a rushed 3-point try.
Crook went 1-for-2 at the foul line for a six-point lead, then drove in for a tough runner following Bell's miss on the front end of a 1-and-1.
Four free throws from Bell, a pair of offensive fouls from Crook and Frink's mid-range jumper made it a two-point game in the final stages.
Crook sank two at the foul line with 23.6 seconds showing, and Hill missed from long range to end FIU's comeback.
Western Kentucky was ahead 9-2 three minutes in, then watched FIU score 17 of the next 19 points. The Hilltoppers countered with an 11-0 run of their own and went into the break with a slim 31-29 lead.
The Hilltoppers earned the program's 41st 20-win season, which is the sixth- most in NCAA history ... Western Kentucky, which has won this conference tourney nine times, is 6-0 against FIU in SBC Tournament play ... FIU was searching for its first-ever SBC Tournament championship ... Tymell Murphy contributed 11 points and 10 rebounds for FIU.