Hilltoppers Advance To Sun Belt Semifinals

By: Brian Freemund
By: Brian Freemund

Tyrone Brazelton and Courtney Lee both posted 20-plus points Sunday, including 13 in the final four minutes, to lift third-seeded Western Kentucky University to an 86-81 victory over No. 6 seed Florida Atlantic in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Conference at the Cajundome.

Brazelton finished with a career-best 23 points and Lee added 20 as the Hilltoppers (22-10) advance to face second-seeded Arkansas State — an 81-74 winner over No. 7 seed New Orleans earlier in the day — Monday at 9 p.m. (CST).

DeAndre Rice collected a game-best 30 points and grabbed seven rebounds to pace the Owls (16-15), while Carlos Monroe chipped in with 19 points and a game-high eight boards.

“It was a very tough game, although we knew that it would be,” said WKU head coach Darrin Horn. “I thought that they were an outstanding team with two of the premier players in the league — we knew coming in that Monroe and Rice could really hurt you, but I thought our defensive effort was tremendous. I was very proud of how our guys played in terms of their physical effort and their focus on the game plan.”

There were 14 ties and 25 lead changes over the first 34-and-a-half minutes until Orlando Mendez-Valdez made two free throws to give the Toppers a 68-67 advantage, then Jeremy Evans followed with a layup at 4:45. Monroe’s basket at the other end 28 seconds later cut the deficit to one, but Lee connected on a pair of free throws to spark WKU’s late run. When Derrick Simmons made 1-of-2 foul shots with 3:42 left to make it a two-point game, Lee responded with a jumper in the lane and FAU would not get within one possession the rest of the way.

Brazelton would make four free throws and a trey in the final 2:22 in leading the Hilltoppers in the scoring column. He finished 6-of-10 from the field and 8-of-9 at the charity stripe, adding four rebounds and a pair of assists. Lee also grabbed four boards, and he was credited with a pair of steals.

WKU shot 51.8 percent for the game, making 56.7 percent over the final 20 minutes. While both teams had eight turnovers at the half, FAU committed nine more after the break while the Toppers were guilty of just five.

“We played with great effort, but we have to do a better job of taking care of the basketball,” Owl head coach Rex Walters said. “Seventeen turnovers are way too many, that really hurt us. Down the stretch we tried to speed the game up with some traps and they got easy baskets.”

With 11 minutes remaining the Hilltoppers trailed 55-53 before using a 7-0 run to make it a two-possession contest midway through the period. A three-point play from Boris Siakam gave WKU the lead back, and he also hit a layup after two Daniel Emerson free throws. A.J. Slaughter extended the lead to six, 64-58, with a layup at 8:54, but was called for a charge as Sean Alarcon made two free throws at the other end of the court. Brent Crews made a three-pointer from the right wing and added a layup to cap an 8-0 Owl spurt that put FAU up for the final time 67-66 with 6:13 remaining.

Crews posted a career-best 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field — he also connected on all four attempts at the free-throw line. Paul Graham gave FAU four players in double digits with 10 points.

The Owls shot 51 percent overall, and were 21-of-26 at the foul line.

FAU scored 10 of the last 14 points over the final three-and-a-half minutes of the first half to take a 38-36 advantage into the locker room. Graham, who was one of three Owls to post 10 points in the opening 20 minutes, converted a three-point play to start the run, with Rice giving them the lead back, 34-32, a minute later with a three-pointer from the top of the key. Monroe and Simmons added layups in the final two minutes as FAU matched its largest lead of the night before Butch Jointer tipped home a miss before the buzzer to cut the Toppers’ deficit in half.

Monroe and Rice also scored 10 prior to intermission.

Brazelton kept WKU in the game before the break, posting 14 points and three rebounds in 14 minutes. That included scoring five in a row as his first trey of the night left the Hilltoppers up two with 14-and-a-half minutes to go. Four times he answered FAU points to give the Toppers the lead back, the last time with a three-point play that made the score 22-21 with seven-and-a-half minutes left.

Although Lee was held scoreless up to that point of the game, he then sandwiched a pair of three-pointers around two free throws from Emerson to help WKU to its largest lead of the opening half, 32-28, with 3:45 to go.

Emerson was 4-of-4 at the foul line as the Toppers shot 80 percent for the game.

Mendez-Valdez recorded game-high totals with four assists and three steals, while Evans finished with nine points and a team-leading five rebounds. All 10 WKU players who saw action scored, as Slaughter posted seven Emerson six, and Mendez-Valdez, Ty Rogers and Siakam each adding five.

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