Sometimes in conference tournaments, especially for one-bid conferences, the winner is the team that's playing the best basketball at that time as opposed to the team that showed itself to be the best throughout the season. But how often does the winning team not only play their best basketball at the right time but also successfully navigates an in-season coaching change? That's exactly what happened for Western Kentucky, who will make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009 as a result of their 74-70 win over North Texas.
Ray Harper took over for the fired Ken McDonald on January 6th in a move many criticized nationally. But he was able to develop the young Hilltoppers enough to not only earn the job full-time but also lead the team to the Big Dance, something few people expected to happen. Tuesday's star was forward/center Teeng Akol, who more than held his own inside against the Mean Green's Tony Mitchell. Akol finished with 23 points on 9-for-11 shooting, also grabbing five rebounds and blocking four shots, and George Fant added 17 points and six boards.
"I'm just happy for these young men," said Harper. "Give them credit, they bought in to what we were telling them. And I knew when we left Bowling Green, Kentucky...that we had a chance."
Drawing a player like Mitchell isn't easy for any big man, but Akol showed himself to be more than capable of taking on the challenge. Mitchell finished with 18 points and five rebounds, but despite four starters reaching double figures the Mean Green fell short. But the decisive blow was struck by WKU's lone senior, as guard Kahlil McDonald knocked down a three-pointer with 1:12 remaiing to give the Hilltoppers a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Freshman guard Derrick Gordon was quiet offensively as he scored just eight points, but the New Jersey native has been a key component all season long.
Under Harper maybe next season would have been the year in which people expected WKU to get things headed in the right direction, but thanks to a staff and a group of players who continued to work that time is now. WKU could end up with a trip to Dayton, but at this point you'll be hard-pressed to find a Hilltopper upset with that possible development. Only two months ago many left this team for dead, never thinking that an NCAA tournament appearance was possible.
Three Notable Performances
1. G/F Javorn Farrell (Massachusetts)
20 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in the Minutemen's 92-83 win over Duquesne in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament.
2. F/C Teeng Akol (Western Kentucky)
23 points (9-11 FG), five rebounds and four blocked shots in the Hilltoppers' 74-70 win over Nroth Texas to win the Sun Belt tournament.
3. F Ian Hummer (Princeton)
18 points, ten rebounds, four assists, four blocked shots and three steals in the Tigers' 62-52 win over Penn.