With 2 minutes, 41 seconds left on the clock, a tired and sore Patrick Sparks stood at mid court smiling as 7,337 fans screamed his praise.
He had just hit a deep 3-pointer with two seconds left on the shot clock. Those were the final three of his career-high 28 points.
The sophomore point guard had just carried his Hilltoppers to a 78-59 win, a victory that places Western in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship tonight against Middle Tennessee State.
A win would give Western (23-8, 12-2 Sun Belt Conference) their third consecutive conference tournament championship.
With the Lady Toppers facing MTSU in today’s 3 p.m. women’s championship, it marks the first time in Sun Belt history that the title games feature the same two programs.
“Obviously, I’m very pleased with the way we played,” coach Dennis Felton said. “It was really fun to watch them play tonight.”
Sparks made sure there was never any doubt who the most dominant player on the court was. He opened the game by scoring Western’s first 13 points. Seven minutes into the game, Sparks lead the Aggies (20-9, 9-6) 13-6 by himself.
“He’s a tremendous player,” New Mexico State University coach Lou Henson said. “He couldn’t make a basket in the game two days ago … The good players aren’t going to be off many days, so he was fantastic.”
He spent most of the second half battling both NMSU and cramps in both hamstrings.
But Sparks wasn’t the only battered body. Junior Mike Wells had to receive stitches in his head in the second half, and NMSU forward James Moore wore a face guard to protect his broken nose.
Moore, the Sun Belt Player of the Year, averages 19.2 points a game, but he suffered a broken nose on Saturday against Arkansas-Little Rock.
“I thought (the guard) bothered me a lot,” Moore said. “I wanted to take it off, but for medical reasons I couldn’t.”
He grabbed 11 rebounds but was held to just nine points for the game.
Felton said the Topper defense played a big part in containing Moore.
“He’s a very difficult player to stop,” he said. “I think the best way to stop him is to not let him get the ball.”
Felton also got an excellent performance from freshman Jamaal Brown for the second straight game.
Brown scored 12 points and grabbed nine rebounds in only 13 minutes of action. Brown had 10 points against Florida International on Saturday.
His nine boards contributed to Western’s 45-38 rebounding edge, including 18 from the offensive glass.
“Jamaal and (senior center) Nate (Williams) really spearheaded that,” Felton said. “And Jamaal just played really great.”
Western lead 37-29 at the half, and NMSU pulled within 39-35 with 17:46 to play. But Western pulled away when they went on a 20-9 run holding the Aggies to just two fields goals over a 6:49 period.
Senior David Boyden rebounded from a scoreless first half to drop in 11 points, despite only hitting 4 of 12 shots.
The Toppers must now quickly turn their attention to Middle Tennessee State University for tonight’s finals. Western beat the Raiders 89-75 last week but lost 69-65 on Jan. 4 at Murfreesboro.
MTSU beat Denver 83-59 in last night’s first semi-final. The Raiders are lead by senior guard Tommy Gunn, a member of the All-Sun Belt first team. He scored 19 points last night, hitting 8 of 10 field goals.
While Western struggled with shooting in the teams’ first meeting, hitting only 25 of 64 for 39.1 percent, MTSU was on fire making 37 of 64 for 60.7 percent.
“I think they have two first-team all-conference players in Gunn and (senior forward William) Pippen,” Felton said. “I actually thought it was pretty bizarre that Pippen was third-team.”
Pippen scored 11 points and grabbed five boards last night. MTSU plays an up-tempo style, utilizing its athleticism.
“Athletes can find a way to make plays even when you do your best job of shutting them down,” Felton said. “And that’s what’s so scary about playing against guys like Gunn and Pippen. But more than that, their team has a lot of character, and they’re very tough.”
Sparks said he is excited about playing MTSU in the finals.
“We expect a big challenge,” he said. “They are very improved from last year, and we’re really looking forward to it. They beat us down there, and we just got a win up here against them, and I think it will be a great battle.”
A win would also mean something more important. It would mean three straight appearances in the NCAA tournament.
“It would be an honor to get three rings in a row,” Wells said. “Then I could come back and get them all four years.”
Reach Danny Schoenbaechler at [email protected]