MEN’S BASKETBALL: Tops trail early against MTSU but win big, 64-52

Danny Schoenbaechler

Second-half turnaround.

It is a phrase the hilltoppers can use to sum up both this season and the Sun Belt Conference championship game.

After trailing by as many as 11 points in the first half, Western stormed back with a dominant performance showing why they have won three straight championships.

The defensive-fueled comeback led to a 64-52 win over Middle Tennessee.

The Toppers will now get to go dancing for a third straight season. Their third conference championship earns them an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.

“It does feel like a routine for us, I mean it’s been three years now since the last time we didn’t manage to win this thing,” Western coach Dennis Felton said. “But it never gets old because they are so incredibly difficult to win.”

The three-peat seemed far-fetched when the Hilltoppers were 12-8, and still wondering how good they could be if the injury bug hadn’t struck starters Chris Marcus and Todor Pandov.

But, 12 straight victories can make a team forget about their tumultuous beginnings.

The men responsible for this turnaround were visibly ecstatic in the melee following the game.

After the final horn blew, Mike Wells jumped on the scorers table and waved three fingers in the air. Then fellow senior David Boyden jumped on the backboard supports and lead the monstrous student section in a thunderous T-O-P-S, Tops-Tops-Tops cheer.

To cap it all off, the coach that helped bring the program back to its winning ways had his moment with the fans.

Felton cut down the nets and then waved three fingers to the crowd as the students mimicked his swaying arm. He had just accomplished something nobody in Western’s storied history could.

A Sun Belt three-peat.

The post-game celebration may not have happened if it wasn’t for the Toppers stingy and opportunistic defense.

The teams were deadlocked at 23 in the opening of the second half, but that would be the final tie of the game. Western held the Raiders scoreless for the first 5 minutes and 34 seconds of the half. The defensive success ignited their 20-6 run to start the half.

That however would not be MTSU’s final scoring drought. They were later stalled offensively for 2:26 and again for 2:12, which gave the Raiders little hope of staying with the energized Toppers.

“They’re a great team at home and we knew they had a run in them,” MTSU senior William Pippen said. “We went on a little scoring drought and that didn’t help at all.”

MTSU junior Tommy Gunn said that his team needed to play better defensively to stay in the game.

“For us to withstand the environment and their runs we had to bring it defensively, but we didn’t at the start of the second half and they took advantage of that,” he said.

Before his leap onto the scorers table, Wells clearly showed he was the best player on the floor.

He recorded his first career double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds, but his defense was the real difference.

Wells was matched up against the dynamic Gunn. Gunn averages 16.1 a game and was a member of the All-Sun Belt first team. Gunn was a non-factor in the game with Wells holding him to 11 points, eight of which came after Western’s lead had ballooned to 18 points.

“Wells is a good player and he made all-conference team and everything,” Gunn said. “We know he is a good player… and tonight he felt comfortable in front of the fans.”

Wells was helped out by sophomore point guard Patrick Sparks running the show. Sparks scored 12 points, but also dished out seven assists and nabbed five steals.

“I thought again that Patrick did a great job leading us where we needed to go offensively,” Felton said.

Western will find out Sunday were they will be seeded in the NCAA tournament. After losing to Florida and Stanford the past two seasons, the Toppers will look to take the next step and advance into the second round.

It is something this battle-tested team of Hilltoppers think they can accomplish.

“We don’t want a first round beat down,” Sparks said playfully. “I’m very excited.”

Extras

•The championship game marked Felton’s 100th career win as a head coach. He is 100-53 in his five seasons at Western.

“I’m proud just to have kept my job for five years,” Felton joked. “But to already have 100 wins is really something.”

•It also marked both the first time in Sun Belt history that the tournament featured identical match ups and that the men’s and women’s programs from the host school have won both tournament titles. (The Lady Toppers defeated MTSU 86-83 in their final.) For the men, this is the first time since 1991 that the host school has won the Sun Belt tournament.

•The men’s and women’s teams will be meeting in Diddle Arena for the NCAA pairings shows on Sunday. The women’s pairings will be announced at 5 p.m. and the men’s will follow at 6 p.m.

Reach Danny Schoenbaechler at [email protected]