Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Western Kentucky wins Sun Belt

By Joshua Hammann
The Associated Press

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - After playing a starring role in getting Western Kentucky into the Sun Belt Conference tournament final, Patrick Sparks could barely hit the backboard Tuesday night. Sparks, who scored Western Kentucky's first 13 points on Monday, bounced back from a poor first half to score 12 points and hand out seven assists for the Hilltoppers (24-8) in their 64-53 win. Western earned a third straight bid to the NCAA tournament.

Sparks' five steals started the fastbreaks that allowed Western Kentucky to pull away. Mike Wells had 18 points and 10 rebounds and Jamaal Brown added nine points and four rebounds for Western.

"Coach (Dennis) Felton's halftime speeches, they're great," Sparks joked about the Hilltoppers' second-half comeback.

The Hilltoppers broke open a 23-23 halftime tie with 7-0 and 11-2 runs to take a 43-29 lead with just more than 11 minutes left. The Blue Raiders (16-14) never recovered.

After shooting 43.5 percent in the first half, Middle Tennessee struggled through scoreless droughts of 6:58, 3:10 and 3:05 in the second half.

"They did some things defensively that we just weren't prepared for," Middle Tennessee guard Tommy Gunn said.

Gunn, who scored 19 points against Denver in Monday night's semifinal, had just 11 on 4-for-10 shooting this time.

William Pippen led the Blue Raiders with 12 points.

"It's a tough loss," Pippen said. "We were one win away from realizing a dream."

Middle Tennessee shot better from the floor than Western Kentucky, 41.5 percent (22-of-53) to 40 percent (20-of-50), but the Blue Raiders went to the foul line just 11 times, making six.

The Hilltoppers were 18-of-24 from the line.

Western came out stone cold. With 3:51 remaining in the half, the Hilltoppers were shooting 14.3 percent and had just three field goals and 11 turnovers.

Early on, Middle Tennessee immediately doubled the post, and Western's lob passes to the block were often picked off or batted away. The Blue Raiders slowed Sparks with swarming defensive pressure from bigger guards such as Gunn and John Humphrey.

"We really thought we were going to win the game," Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said. "We were up 20-9 and defending real well."

But Western closed out the half on an 11-3 run to pull even at the break. Middle Tennessee also had 13 first-half turnovers.

"We got a reminder at halftime and came out and played power basketball," Sparks said.

The Hilltoppers have 18 NCAA tournament appearances, going 15-19 in 34 games. Western is returning to the tournament for the sixth time since 1990. The Hilltoppers lost in the first round in both 2001 and 2002.

As for the conference tournament, the third crown in a row was extra special.

"It just feels better," Wells said, "because we were in our home court."

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