"We believed and we continued to fight. " -WKU Head Coach Ray Harper
The Hilltoppers have been called a Cinderella team from the get go. Now they're being called 2013 Sun Belt Conference Tournament Champions. WKU has won the Sun Belt Conference Basketball Tournament for the second year in a row by a score of 65 to 63. It was unthinkable to everyone but the coaches and players of the Hilltoppers.
"We believed and we continued to fight. Once again we made plays down the stretch. I told you last night (Sunday), that the big fellow on the end (George Fant) would not have another night like he had last night. I'm proud of them and we're moving on and we'll continue to play." said Head Coach Ray Harper.
As they did throughout the tournament, the Hilltoppers didn't make it easy on themselves. With 40 seconds to play, senior point guard Jamal Crook was called for an offensive foul and FIU's Jerome Frink made a subsequent jumper. After that misstep, Crook, who had 17 points, was fouled and sent to the line. The charity stripe was no stranger to Jamal. He shot 9-13 from the free throw line, including the two that he sank after he was fouled in a big spot late. The Panthers then missed a 3-pointer and George Fant grabbed the last of his game-high 13 rebounds securing a victory for the Hilltoppers. Fant was the tournament MVP in 2012, but played poorly in this year's semifinals being held scoreless.
"I told everybody thank you for having my back. I told them I'd make it up with my performance tomorrow (Monday). " stated Fant.
Did Fant ever make up for his performance. The sophomore had 17 points and four blocks to go along with those 13 rebounds. He made key shots during droughts and stood strong during many scraps and defensive rebounding opportunities. Fant along with guard Brandon Harris were named to the Sun Belt All-Tournament team. Harris was equally deserving of the award. He hit four 3-pointers in the game and handled FIU's pressure when Crook was out of the game. The tournament's MVP T.J. Price had a less impressive game than his last few in the tournament, but he still managed eight points in the contest. He averaged 18 points in four games and came up big two nights in a row with a steal each game in the final minute that brought the Tops back from a last second deficit.
Cinderella officially has a date to the ball. Now it's just time to wait for the NCAA to decide where the ball will be held.
The title marks the fourth for WKU in six years. Their NCAA tournament appearance will be the program's 23rd appearance in school history. According to Elias Sports, WKU is the first team to win four games in four days during a conference tournament in back to back years since the 1996-1997 season.