Western Kentucky wins Sun Belt Championship

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- George Fant helped Western Kentucky book its return trip to the NCAA tournament.

Fant had 17 points and 13 rebounds and Western Kentucky earned its second straight NCAA tournament berth with a 65-63 win over Florida International in the Sun Belt Conference championship game Monday night.

The fifth-seeded Hilltoppers (20-15) used the same script as last season, winning four games in four days to secure their fourth NCAA tournament appearance in six seasons. They capped the run by never trailing in the second half and holding on against the resurgent Panthers.

Florida International (18-14) led by as many as eight in the first half one night after shocking top-seeded Middle Tennessee, but the Panthers were unable to overcome 24-of-62 shooting.

Cameron Bell led four Florida International players in double figures with 15 points. Malik Smith had 14, Jerome Fink 13 and Tymell Murphy 11.

The win caps a remarkable two-year tournament run for Western Kentucky, which survived a mid-season coaching change last year to reach its first NCAA tournament since 2009. The run included an NCAA win over Mississippi Valley State -- with President Barack Obama watching -- and a loss to eventual national champion Kentucky in the second round.

Little came easy in coach Ray Harper's second season with the Hilltoppers, including a loss in the regular-season finale against Middle Tennessee.

However, Harper had Western Kentucky once again peaked when it mattered most. The Hilltoppers led 62-60 with less than a minute remaining, and Jamal Crook -- who finished with 17 points -- closed it out with three free throws in the final 23.6 seconds.

Brandon Harris added 12 points for Western Kentucky on 4-of-7 shooting from 3-point range.

While the Hilltoppers will play on, Florida International heads home after its first season under coach Richard Pitino -- the son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Pitino was hired last April, taking over after a three-year stretch during which the school was 26-65 under former coach Isiah Thomas.

Thomas was fired after last season's 16-19 record, paving the way for the younger Pitino to leave his job as an assistant under his father. The elder Pitino was in Summit Arena on Monday night, sitting directly behind the Florida International bench as his son tried to lead the school to its second NCAA tournament appearance.

The Panthers' only other berth came in 1995, and its last winning record before this season came in 1999-2000.

Florida International used a 17-2 run early to build a 19-11 lead. Smith and Bell capped the run with back-to-back 3-pointers for the Panthers, who split the regular season series with the Hilltoppers.

The lead didn't last long, however, as Western Kentucky went on an 11-0 run to pull ahead 22-19 on its way to a 31-29 halftime lead. The Hilltoppers held the lead throughout the second half.