Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Western Kentucky shooting for third straight title

Will play Middle Tennessee in Sun Belt final

The Associated Press

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - Tommy Gunn was automatic. The 6-foot-3 junior guard will have to be just as accurate Tuesday night if Middle Tennessee is to have a chance to claim the Sun Belt Conference tournament title and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Gunn was 8-for-10 from the floor and 2-for-2 from the line for 19 points as Middle Tennessee (16-13) defeated Denver 83-59 Monday night in the semifinals.

Gunn was not only deadly with the jumpshot but also helped shut down Denver ace B.J. Pratt.

Denver (17-15) could manage only two field goals in the first 8:32 of the game, and Pratt, who averaged almost 30 points in Denver's two tournament wins, didn't score until the last five minutes of the first half. He finished with eight points on 8-of-12 shooting from the floor.

"We just wore him out," said Mike Humphrey, who had 15 points for the Blue Raiders.

Zupic Zeljko led the Pioneers with 14 points and 15 rebounds.

"We took them out of their sets, and I think we shut down their key players," Gunn said.

Now Middle Tennessee inherits the thankless task of trying to shut down Western Kentucky guard Patrick Sparks.

Sparks scored a career-high 28 points as Western Kentucky defeated New Mexico State 78-59 Monday night to advance to the final.

Sparks scored Western's first 13 points of the game, hitting three of his four 3-point shots and two free throws.

"We were just clicking on all cylinders tonight," said Sparks, whose previous career high of 27 points came in a 92-82 loss to the Aggies in Las Cruces, N.M., Jan. 25.

Leading by eight at the break, the Hilltoppers (23-8) went on a 14-4 run to take a 62-45 lead with 7:57 left in the game.

David Boyden, who had 11 points for Western, scored six points during the decisive run.

Less than a minute later, two Sparks free throws extended the lead to 19, 64-45, and the Aggies (20-9) never threatened again.

Gunn has had success against the Hilltoppers, scoring 17 points in Middle Tennessee's 69-65 win Jan. 4 in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and scoring 26 in a losing effort on the last regular-season game of the year in Bowling Green.

"We have a chance to go to the Big Dance," Gunn said after defeating Denver. "We have five seniors on this team, so everyone is real excited about that."

Middle Tennessee has been to the NCAA tournament six times and is 2-6 in tournament play, most recently losing to Virginia 104-88 in the second round of the 1989 Southeast Regional.

The Hilltoppers have won the past two conference titles and have 18 NCAA tournament appearances, going 15-19 in 34 tournament games.

Western is looking for its third straight tournament bid and sixth overall since 1990. The Hilltoppers lost in the first round in both the 2001 and 2002 national tournaments.

"It would be an honor to get three (conference titles) in a row," guard Mike Wells said.

America East

BOSTON - Jason Grochowalski scored 22 points as Boston University beat Northeastern 71-61 in the semifinals. BU will host the winner of Hartford and Vermont.

NCAA bound

These are teams that have clinched an NCAA Tournament bid by winning their conference tournaments:

•Austin Peay, Ohio Valley

•East Tennessee State, Southern

•Manhattan, Metro Atlantic Athletic

•UNC-Wilmington, Colonial Athletic Association

•North Carolina-Asheville, Big South

•Penn, Ivy League

•Troy State, Atlantic Sun

•Creighton, Missouri Valley

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