As we predicted last time around, Western Kentucky will represent the Sun Belt Conference in the Big dance this year. This was no surprise to avid Belt followers. However, what was a surprise was the opponent they faced in the finals - South Alabama.
South Alabama came into the tournament as the sixth seed, and slid into the finals after winning their first two games by a combined total of five points. One of their opponents was Troy; who's magical run came to a close by just three points. Not that they didn't have their fair share of chances to get the win themselves. Trojans Guard Michael Vogler missed the front end of a one-and-one and then two 3-point tries in the final 17 seconds as Troy tried to tie the game.
Ironically, USA's last leg into the final game came with little difficulty when they usurped a dismal shooting University of Arkansas Little-Rock squad by ten points. The Trojans had no answer for the loss of Moore, their top scorer, and it showed. They went 16-61 from the floor on the night. However, South Alabama would not be so fortunate against WKU in the finals.
Tourney Recap and Tidbits
First Round - Wednesday, March 4, 2009
No. 9 Florida International 71 at No. 8 Louisiana-Lafayette 69
No. 4 North Texas 79, No. 13 Florida Atlantic 73
No. 5 Middle Tennessee 69, No. 12 Arkansas State 62
No. 11 New Orleans 60 at No. 6 South Alabama 62
No. 7 Denver 66, No. 10 Louisiana-Monroe 57
Second Round - Sunday, March 8, 2009
No. 1 WKU 66 vs. No. 9 FIU 48
No. 4 North Texas 88 vs. No. 5 Middle Tennessee 79
No. 2 UALR vs. No. 7 Denver 55
No. 3 Troy 75 vs. No. 6 South Alabama 78
Semi Finals - Monday, March 9, 2009
No. 1 WKU 77 vs. No. 4 North Texas 70
A.J. Slaughter scored 22 points, including two late three pointers to give the Toppers a 77-70 victory over North Texas in the Sun Belt semifinals. North Texas had tied the game with just over five minutes remaining. However, Slaughter would answer with two threes to make it 64-58, and bail out Western's poor performance from beyond the arch on the night (4-19).
No. 2 UALR 44 vs. No. 6 South Alabama 54
Domonic Tilford and Bryan Sherrer each scored 10 first-half points Monday as South Alabama opened a big lead over Arkansas-Little Rock and took a 54-44 victory in a Sun Belt Conference semifinal despite shooting 22 percent in the second half. UALR had five turnovers in the first 7:20 while falling behind 20-5. Ironically, the Trojans could not return the favor later in the second half as South Alabama would have their own cool spell. At one point in the period USA was shooting 2 of 15 from the floor.
Finals - Tuesday, March 10, 2009
No. 1 WKU 64 vs. No. 6 South Alabama 56
Despite throwing away a 15-point first-half lead and trailing 43-39 in the second, the Hilltoppers found their way late, securing their 21st NCAA tournament berth by a final score of 64-56 before a national television audience on ESPN2. South Alabama trailed 27-12 early on and 35-25 at halftime before putting together a big run to start the second half. DeAndre' Coleman led the Jaguars with 27 points. A.J. Slaughter scored 18 points for WKU.
All Tournament Team
Josh White UNT
DeAndre Coleman USA
Domonic Tilford USA
Orlando Mendez-Valdez WKU
Sergio Kerusch WKU
AJ Slaughter WKU
We mentioned previously that no other Belt teams had the resume or results to convince the committee to give them an at large nod to the Round of 64 if Western Kentucky were to win the tournament. The Toppers will likely be a number 14 seed. But they could sneak in as high as 13 in some predictions floating around by those who delve into the soft science of post season placement. There could be some interest in the NIT for the likes of UALR, which currently has an RPI as high as 102. But narrowly beating Denver (3 points) and then losing to USA (10 points) could be a deal breaker for the committee.