WKU going dancing after win in SBC title game

Senior guard Jamal Crook holds out his jersey while celebrating WKU’s win over Flordia International in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament final to clinch a spot in the NCAA tournament.

Lucas Aulbach

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Book your tickets — the Toppers are headed back to the NCAA Tournament.

WKU closed a drama-filled weekend Monday with a 65-63 win over Florida International in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship to clinch a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Unlike their previous two games, the Toppers didn’t need to rely on a late steal or two to earn this win. While FIU made a late run to make it close, WKU led for the entire second half and clinched the game with a pair of free throws from senior guard Jamal Crook with 24 seconds left gave WKU a four-point lead to help clinch the win.

The Golden Panthers hit a 3-point shot with five seconds to go but it wasn’t enough as WKU escaped with another two-point win.

“Like I mentioned earlier, they counted us out last year and they definitely counted us out this year and we did it,” Crook said on the court after the game. “We’re champs — again.”

Winning a close game was nothing new this weekend for the Toppers. After a 14-point drubbing of Louisiana-Monroe in the first round, WKU won its next three games by a combined total of seven points.

It was the second consecutive year the Toppers have won four games in four days at the Sun Belt Tournament to shore up a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but coach Ray Harper said anyone who spent time at WKU’s practices this year could’ve seen the run coming.

“If you watch four consecutive days of our practices, you’d understand why they can probably get through four days,” Harper said. “Florida International had to play three games in three games, so I felt like our guys are well conditioned and we’ve got some depth.

“It’s a mindset, it’s mental toughness _ are you mentally tough enough to play through a little fatigue? Both teams were a little fatigued tonight from the games but I think it’s more mental than anything.”

While sophomore guard T.J. Price was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, sophomore forward George Fant was the hero for WKU Monday.

After a slow game Sunday against Arkansas State, the former Warren Central star blew up against FIU Monday, finishing with 17 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in 37 minutes of play.

Fant said he told everyone on the team after Sunday’s game that he would be a new man in the championship game.

“Last night after we got the win, I came in and told everybody, ‘Thank you for having my back. Believe in my performance tomorrow, I’m not going to play like that twice,’” Fant said.

Crook also had possibly his best game of the four-day tournament Monday as well. He finished with 17 points and four rebounds and converted on three crucial free throws to seal the win down the stretch.

Junior guard Brandon Harris finished with 12 points and six rebounds, connecting on 4-of-7 3-point attempts.

Harris said it was teamwork that sealed the deal for WKU over the course of the tournament.

“You don’t always play your best, but when you play together, you’ve always got a chance right there at the end,” Harris said.

WKU president Gary Ransdell said after the game that he’s happy the Hilltopper postseason tradition will continue for another year.

“It’s part of our DNA, part of our history, it’s where we belong — in the postseason,” he said.

Right now, WKU’s postseason future is up in the air. While the Toppers clinched an NCAA Tournament berth with the win, their next opponent will not be announced until the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on Sunday.

Harris said the Toppers are ready to dance on an even bigger stage.

“The job ain’t over yet,” he said. “We’ve still got to go to the NCAA Tournament and try to penetrate there. This was like the semi-formal, now we’re on our way to the prom, baby. Now we’re on our way to the prom.”