MEN’S BASKETBALL: Hilltoppers drop FIU, 71-58

Danny Schoenbaechler

When this season began, every Western fan – and basketball fans everywhere, for that matter – were certain the Toppers would cruise to the Sun Belt Conference championship.

The two-time defending East Division champs returned four starters. However, after losing their top two players to injury, this championship may be the most satisfying.

It was definitely the most difficult.

The Hilltoppers dismantled Florida International 71-58 last night in Miami to clinch at least a share of the division crown.

“We’re probably as proud of this as any we have won,” Western coach Dennis Felton said. “I’m really proud of this team.”

As they have much of the season, the Toppers relied on a sophomore to carry them to victory.

Patrick Sparks dropped 20 points and three assists on the Panthers for his second straight 20-point performance.

“Early on we got off to a good start,” he said. “They got close for a minute, but we hit some shots.”

Western (18-8 overall, 10-2 Sun Belt) was 23-41 from the floor for 56 percent, but FIU wasn’t far behind, hitting 46 percent of its attempts.

Felton said he was very pleased with his team’s performance, watched by 689 fans in Miami.

“We were totally consistent at attacking them,” he said. “To win this game by 13 is a blowout, it’s an absolute blowout.”

FIU only gives up an average of 63 points a game, making Western’s 71 even more impressive.

The Toppers will now turn their attention to Bracket Buster Saturday. They will play Ball State in Diddle Arena at 3 p.m.

The Cardinals have stumbled to a 12-12 record, largely in part because of the loss of their top player Theron Smith, to injury.

Felton, though, isn’t sympathetic.

“I really don’t feel bad for them,” he said. “Not after what we’ve been through this year.

Next week will feature two tough Sun Belt games as the Toppers try to win the conference championship outright. Western will travel to Lafayette, La., on Wednesday to battle West Division champ Louisiana-Lafeyette, and then welcome Middle Tennessee to Diddle on Saturday.

“There was a lot to play for tonight,” Sparks said. “But we don’t want to share anything.”

Reach Danny Schoenbaechler at [email protected]