Adrian Banks scored a game-high 29 points Monday, going 8-of-12 from the field while hitting all 11 free-throw attempts, to lead No. 2 seed Arkansas State to an 80-73 victory over third-seeded Western Kentucky University in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference at the Cajundome.
Ryan Wedel came off the bench to add 16 points, connecting on 4-of-7 from beyond the three-point arc, to help the Indians (18-14) advance to the championship contest against North Texas. The fifth-seeded Mean Green defeated No. 8 seed Middle Tennessee in the first semifinal.
Courtney Lee posted 17 points as the Hilltoppers fell to 22-11. Orlando Mendez-Valdez scored 12 and Tyrone Brazelton posted 11 to go along with six assists.
While WKU committed only nine turnovers, the Indians shot 51.1 percent from the field and made 26-of-28 free-throw attempts while outrebounding the Toppers 35-20 — that included limiting them to just six offensive boards with WKU shooting 45.5 percent from the floor.
Although trailing by two at the break, the Hilltoppers opened the second half with a 15-4 run that gave them a 49-40 lead with 15-and-a-half minutes remaining. That was the largest advantage of the night for either team.
After two Banks free throws tied the game 38-38 at 16:54, Ty Rogers buried a three-pointer from the right corner as the Toppers would score 11 of the next 13 points. Jeremy Evans was intentionally fouled with just under 16 minutes to go, and after he made both free throws and added a layup on the ensuing possession WKU was ahead 46-40.
Lee capped the run with a three that forced the Indians to call a time-out.
The Toppers went without a basket for more than two minutes, though, as ASU made it a one-possession contest, 49-47, when Banks sank two free throws at 13:09. Butch Jointer — who collected nine points and four rebounds — sandwiched a pair of baskets around Brazelton’s layup to help WKU push the lead back to 55-47 with 12:13 left.
ASU would regain control of the contest from there. Jim Jones’ layup with nine-and-a-half minutes remaining tied the contest at 59 while capping a 9-2 spurt. Wedel sank a three 40 seconds later to put the Indians ahead for good.
“We knew coming into tonight that it would be a tough game,” said WKU head coach Darrin Horn. “It turned out like most tournament games do — the team that makes plays down the stretch and makes shots late usually ends up on top. That’s what Arkansas State did.
“We had some great looks late, some wide open shots that we usually make at a high rate that just didn’t go down.”
After two Lee free throws at 5:38 brought to the Hilltoppers to within three points at 66-63, ASU got a jumper from Banks and two Jones free throws to extended to a seven-point advantage with just over three minutes to go. The only time the rest of the night the Toppers pulled within one possession came when Jeremy Evans hit a layup with 27 seconds left.
“This was a great performance, and if I sound overly excited I am,” Indian head coach Dickey Nutt said. “I thought toughness late in the game, holding on to the ball and doing a good job in all phases were key.”
WKU got off to a fast start, building a four-point lead as Lee collected seven points by the first media time-out. Mendez-Valdez followed with a layup at 15:08 to make the score 12-8 — he would pace the Toppers with nine points in the first half — before ASU used an 8-1 run over a minute-and-a-half stretch to go ahead for the rest of the half.
Wedel started the spurt with a three-pointer from the top of the key, finishing with eight points before the break, but it was Banks who led the Indians over the opening 20 minutes. He would hit 2-of-3 from beyond the arc while making 6-of-7 overall to record 14 points. ASU led by six, 21-15, when he connected on the second of four straight field goals with 10:19 to go, while his second three a minute-and-a-half later gave the Indians their largest advantage, 24-17.
Not only did ASU grab two more rebounds than the Hilltoppers in the first half, they shot 60 percent from the floor.
Isaac Wells put the Indians up 28-22 with six-and-a-half minutes remaining when he hit his only field goal of the half, but WKU twice cut the lead to one point — A.J. Slaughter made a driving layup and Mendez-Valdez sank two free throws — before going into the locker room down 36-34 when Slaughter hit a three with 41 seconds to go.
Wells finished with 11 points, although he was just 3-of-10 from the field, as did Jones. Wells added 10 boards to lead all players while recording his 11th double-double of the year.
Evans collected 10 points to give the Hilltoppers four players in double figures as well, with Rogers matching a career high with five assists.