Mobile, Ala. — The Western Kentucky University basketball team’s strength this season has been it’s six seniors, but an underclassman stole the show Tuesday.
Sophomore Jeremy Evans posted the first double-double by a Hilltopper this year with a career-best 20 points and season-high 14 rebounds en route to earning Most Valuable Player honors following WKU’s 67-57 victory over rival Middle Tennessee in the championship game of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament at the Mitchell Center.
With the win, the Toppers (27-6) earned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament for the 20th time in school history and fourth this decade. The team will gather at E.A. Diddle Arena Sunday at 4:30 p.m. (CDT) prior to the announcement of this season’s tournament field on CBS.
The Blue Raiders, who eliminated top-seeded South Alabama in the semifinals Monday, fell to 17-15 despite getting 16 points from Desmond Yates.
“From day one what I wanted to do was build this program with talent and character. I think we have assembled a group that has done that,” said Hilltopper head coach Darrin Horn. “The kids deserve everything they are experiencing tonight. They have had hard times on and off the court, and through it all they stuck together. They went by faith and not sight.
“Every time there was a so-called big game that we didn’t win, they didn’t stop believing. What you saw tonight was the fruition of that.”
Evans finished 8-of-9 from the field and 4-of-5 at the foul line, adding two blocks in 30 minutes. It was the first time this year that he has recorded double digits in back-to-back games after he led the Hilltoppers with 16 points in their semifinal victory over UALR.
Evans was joined on the all-tournament team by Tyrone Brazelton and Courtney Lee, who both posted 13 points in the title contest. Lee added eight rebounds — matching a season high — and three steals, while Brazelton was credited with half of WKU’s eight assists and was 9-of-11 at the free-throw line in helping the Toppers shoot a season-high 86.2 percent from the stripe.
Despite recording a shooting percentage well below the Blue Raiders for most of the first half and committing two more turnovers, the Hilltoppers took a 34-31 lead to the locker room after closing the period on a 13-3 run over the final five-and-a-half minutes. After Yates — who scored 11 points in the first period — gave MT its largest lead, 28-21, with just over six minutes left, Brazelton made two free throws and Evans followed with a tip in of a missed shot and a layup to cut the deficit to one three-and-a-half minutes before the break.
Evans posted 11 points and six rebounds in the first half to help keep the Toppers in the game.
It was still a two-point MT advantage with just over a minute left when Evans was fouled and made both free throws to tie the contest, 31-31. Orlando Mendez-Valdez then canned a three-pointer from in front of the Blue Raider bench seconds before the horn to give WKU its first lead since the 18-minute mark.
Coming out of the break, the Hilltoppers took control by forcing the Blue Raiders to miss their first seven shots from the floor. They would score eight of the first nine points of the half, with Lee’s layup at 15:38 pushing the lead to double figures, 42-32.
MT shot just 34.6 percent from the floor over the final 20 minutes, ending the game hitting 39.3 percent.
The Hilltoppers connected on 39.6 percent overall, but they hit 25-of-29 at the foul line. Lee’s three-pointer from the wing made the score 55-41 with 7:47 left, which would end up being their last field goal of the night. Brazelton sank 6-of-7 free throws in the final five-plus minutes, Lee hit all four foul shots and Mendez-Valdez sank two during that stretch as the Blue Raiders would get no closer than eight points the rest of the way.
Mendez-Valdez finished with seven points, Ty Rogers added six and D.J. Magley chipped in with five for the Toppers.
Demetrius Green would collect eight points in the first period and Theryn Hudson scored seven for the Blue Raiders, who opened up an 11-5 lead in the first four-and-a-half minutes with the help of five points in just over a minute from the former. WKU got within one possession with two Magley free throws and a foul shot from Boris Siakam, but Yates doubled the lead when he converted a three-point play at the other end of the floor for a 14-8 edge with just under 14 minutes remaining.
After Mendez-Valdez drew the Toppers within two, 18-16, with a pair of foul shots at 9:27, Dino Hair and Green scored 14 seconds apart to push the lead back to six.
The trio of Yates, Green and Hudson would combine to score just 12 points after the break, though, as Green posted 12 points and Hudson collected 10 on the night. Green led the Blue Raiders with eight rebounds and three steals as well.
“I thought our team got off to a good start tonight,” MT head coach Kermit Davis. “But, we went through a period of time where WKU really got us on the boards. They made all the hustle plays.”
It was the third time this year that the Hilltoppers have defeated MT after sweeping the regular-season series.
WKU won all three games at the Sun Belt Tournament by double figures, as each of their six victories during their current winning streak have been by 10 or more points.